Museums Say `Please Touch' - By Computer
Interactive video lets visitors choose an object, rotate its image, and zoom in for a close-up
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.