Museums Say `Please Touch' - By Computer

Interactive video lets visitors choose an object, rotate its image, and zoom in for a close-up

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IMAGINE walking through the antiquities section at an art museum, where a 2,500-year-old Greek vase catches your eye. The black-and-gold ``freeze frames'' that wrap around its gracefully curved surface depict some of the gods and heroes celebrated in Homer's poetry. Wouldn't it be nice to take it right out of the display case for a better look - to see the whole sequence, not just the pictures facing you from the case? After all, vase paintings provide some of the best surviving evidence of what life was like in the golden age of Greece.

The trouble is: No museum allows a visitor to handle such an object. But the Getty Museum here in Malibu is offering the next best thing - an interactive video system that, in effect, brings priceless objects out of the case and, potentially, outside the museum altogether, into classrooms, libraries, even homes.

The Getty is a leader among several art institutions - including the Louvre and the Pompidou Center in Paris, the National Gallery in Washington, the Museum Education Consortium under the leadership of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Britain's National Gallery in London - in experimenting with laser disc and interactive technology that not only rewards curiosity but reveals a glimpse of art museums in the 21st century.

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Here at the Getty, an oceanside replica of a villa from the ancient Italian city Herculaneum, the interactive computer-controlled video disc display is located in two small alcoves near a showcase containing four of the best Greek vases in the collection.

``Interactive'' means you don't just watch a film or slide show on video. Instead, you play a part in determining what you see. You can touch the 13-inch TV screen to bring up a particular vase, rotate its image, choose a section of special interest, and zoom in for a close-up.

You can touch the appropriate spot in an onscreen menu to see a potter making a replica of a Greek vase, or watch Getty director John Walsh demonstrating how the pottery was used or how decisions about its artistic quality are made.

In a gallery upstairs, near the record-setting $53.9 million Van Gogh ``Irises'' painting, another interactive system lets you take the same kind of self-mapped, at-your-own-pace excursion through five medieval manuscripts from the museum's collection, leafing electronically from page to sumptuous page, as you could never do with the real thing.

Why did the Getty decide to invest about $250,000 in the vase project and $300,000 in manuscript one?

``I was in a laundromat, and the kids were driving me crazy playing Pac-Man,'' says Marion True, the museum's curator of antiquities. ``And I thought, there's got to be a better use for computer technology.''

One idea led to another. For a show then in the planning stages, she decided a computerized video presentation would be a way of improving on those terse little cards that accompany museum objects. ``Labels don't really work, because you're not interested in what's on them,'' says Dr. True. ``You're interested in when and how the object was made, the history of the discovery, all kinds of other things.''

Even a detailed exhibition catalog doesn't meet the needs of most visitors, she continues. ``A book is linear; one moves through it chapter by chapter. What's wonderful about an interactive program is that it's nonlinear.''

For example, by touching the screen, a visitor can jump forward or backward in the vase program to sample as much or little as he or she likes from about two-and-a-half hours of artfully recorded sounds and moving images, showing roughly 100 vases.

With a video disc system that encompassed the whole Getty collection, says True, someone interested in weapons and armor in ancient Greece could go to a data bank of 5,000 vases or their fragments and pull up all the images that show the tools of war, without having to sort through the ones that don't - a tremendous time-saver.

The ideas of True and her colleagues got a positive response from the museum and the Getty Trust, which put up part of the money for the Greek vase pilot project, unveiled in 1986. Two years later, the museum made its manuscripts program, applying lessons learned from the earlier project.

The Getty considers the programs largely successful. Bringing interactive video into an art museum ``shows that somebody cares about you as a human being instead of putting an object inaccessibly against a wall,'' says David Ebitz, who heads the Getty's education and academic-affairs section.

Surprisingly, however, Dr. Ebitz, says the museum probably will not make any more interactive videos for in-house use alone; the number of people using the system is too low to justify the high cost.

``My goal is to have them in schools and ultimately in homes,'' he says. ``My dream is that, when you're planning to come to L.A. from Dallas, say, ... you can literally visit the museum in your living room first, gallery by gallery.'' Doing that would ``let people know enough about this place - or any place they've never been - to feel entirely at home here.'' It could also broaden the museum audience, he says.

How far off is the technology that would make that dream possible?

Various interactive video systems are starting to appear in schools and libraries. And, according to Peter Bloch, owner of Interactive Arts in Santa Monica, Calif., which produced the Getty manuscripts program, the first interactive video system for the home ``will hit the market supposedly by Christmas of this year.'' Called CDTV, it is being manufactured by Commodore, of Winchester, Pa.

A much larger technology called CDI - Compact Disc Interactive - and will be launched in about a year by Philips, Sony, Matsushita, Hitachi, and Yamaha, adds Mr. Bloch. CDI ``will set an international standard for a compact disc that stores graphics, text, pictures, audio, and computer instructions. ``The CDI programs will run on a stand-alone player that looks like a compact-disc player and will plug into your TV set.

The people who sit down at one of the four touch-screens for the vase and manuscripts programs range from preschoolers to PhDs. This reporter spoke with eight-year-old Aaron Sapin, a fourth-grader from San Diego, who had selected the ``Form and Function'' segment on the vase video. After spending about 10 minutes watching, he said he had learned that near-perfect symmetry was a good way to tell a well-made vase from a poor one. He added that he would check out the vases in the case before going off to meet his family.

Aaron and others who are into video games may find the Getty system too tame, cautions Ebitz. ``It's just a branching sort of thing, where you get more information as you go down the menus. You aren't offered choices with unexpected events around the corner or feedback from the computer about whether you are going in the right direction - the things that make some video games attractive.''

In addition, picture resolution so far isn't sharp enough for viewers to distinguish the subtleties of European paintings, one factor behind the Getty's choice of vases and manuscripts for its first programs.

Ebitz predicts high-definition television (HDTV) could provide the clarity of 35-mm slides for future projects. The lack as yet of standardization of HDTV and interactive video formats, he says, figured in the Getty decision to defer further work on interactive videos until the museum's new Brentwood facility is ready to open in 1996. For now, the museum will concentrate on other technology projects, including an interactive audio guide.

As art museums grapple with the questions of cost and educational and home uses, one thing is clear: Visitors love the interactive technology.

In a test of people who agreed to be guinea pigs for the Getty, ``we got a tremendously favorable reaction,'' says Dr. True. ``The comments were overwhelmingly positive. By taking the most arcane example of antiquities and putting it on the cutting edge of technology, it brought a whole new wave of interest. And we found the video made a significant difference in the amount of information people took away from the exhibition.''

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