THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Kelli Wood
The horizons of preserving, interpreting, and displaying art and history have expanded to meet an increasingly virtual present. Curators now map visitor flow and test light effects on scanned objects rendered in 3D exhibition software. Galleries and artists rely upon chic design and seamless functionality for websites accompanying brick-and-mortar shows and sales. Collection managers wrangle the kraken’s weighty and ever-expanding tentacles of data. Museums engage visitors through digital interactives and apps aimed at both education and entertainment. For many, the closures and isolation of the pandemic have clarified and amplified the possibilities and pitfalls that technology brings to media, old and new. For others, sights have been long set on the nexus of tech and object.
Duke University’s Wired! Lab for Digital Art History & Visual Culture has interrogated the potential of new computational work in the realm of the arts for over a decade. A recent partnership with Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art resulted in a fully online, interactive exhibition that was ready to debut in September 2020 despite the museum’s physical closure in the wake of the pandemic.
“Cultures of the Sea: Art of the Ancient Americas” offers the online visitor an immersion into history and artifacts from the coastal cultures of central and South America. Dr. Julia McHugh conceived of the exhibit as part of a museum studies course that pivoted and changed its scope during the shift to remote learning. The exhibit came to fruition through a collaboration with her students and her colleague at Wired!, Dr. Mark Olson, who works on new media modes of representation and visualization.
In this interview McHugh and Olson steer the New Art Examiner through the technological waters that enabled the virtual exhibit.
Virtual exhibition of Cultures of the Sea: Art of the Ancient Americas, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, NC. Photo courtesy of the Nasher Museum. Viewable at https://nasher.duke.edu/exhibitions/cultures-of-the-sea-art-of-the-ancient-americas/
New Art Examiner: For our next issue on the intersection of art and technology, we wanted to talk to folks who are taking the history of art, the history of things, into a digital platform. What started you off on this path?
McHugh: I came to Duke from Peru, where I was finishing up some projects with some local collections there. I'm an art historian by training, and I did my Ph.D. at UCLA, but I always gravitated towards museums and hybrid positions of curating and teaching. My position right now is both as a curator at the Nasher, and I also direct our Museum Theory & Practice concentration. We have a really collaborative approach to the digital and curatorial and pedagogical, which has been really effective—our work has led to a new team called “Virtual Nasher” to create future virtual exhibitions with Mark and the Wired! Lab.
Olson: I have a rather nontraditional career trajectory. My Ph.D. is in communications studies with a really strong critical humanistic perspective from UNC Chapel Hill. But because my son was on the way, I decided to take what turned out to be an eight-year hiatus in the middle of my degree to support interdisciplinary humanities efforts at Duke. At the time, because I was the guy who knew PowerPoint, I think, they said, why don't you help plan the technology infrastructure for our new humanities building? All my tech skills have been self-taught since then—and through workshops. Now I am on the faculty of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, teaching courses in media studies and working on tech with the Wired! lab.
NAE: So how did “Cultures of the Sea” come about?
McHugh: When I came to Duke, I started—and it’s still ongoing—a massive assessment of what is a majorly understudied part of the collection: the Art of the Ancient Americas collection. That's around three thousand artworks. And I had early conversations with Mark Olson in particular about these holdings because he had done some other digital projects at the museum, and he was really interested in working with that collection through projects such as 3D modeling.
NAE: What technologies did you use to put it online and give the public access to it?
Olson: So, over the summer, we were pursuing two ideas, and one was to use a gaming engine to allow visitors to kind of freely explore. But it became clear that we weren't going to have enough digital resources to make that robust. Instead, we worked with 360-degree panoramic images. Our Office of Information Technology had a camera that we could borrow to run some tests. And we ended up using an open-source tool. Prior to the pandemic, the museum imagined using 3D models for physical public outreach—being able put the plastic printed model of a vessel or object in a kid’s hands. Now the Nasher has really taken to the idea of 3D modeling as a future way of both archiving objects and providing public access to its objects online.
McHugh: For me it also gives a whole new lens through which to study the artworks. When I'm pulling things off the shelves and examining them, I'm looking at them closely just with my bare eyes for their material qualities. But working with Wired! and 3D modeling has allowed me to view the often invisible parts of artworks. For example, we were able to see areas of damage on the pieces that weren't accessible to the naked eye. We were able to see some previously invisible maker's marks. Even for conservation we noticed, oh, this piece has a crack here that's not visible on the surface, let’s be careful.
NAE: How did you create the 3D models? Did you use 3D scanning, or photogrammetry?
Olson: So, we did two passes. First, we did photogrammetric capture. [Photogrammetry creates 3D models by deriving contours and measurements from overlapping photographs of every angle of an object.] But then with another project I've been working on, with a history of medicine collection, I had developed a partnership with Duke Radiology. And second, we performed CT scans of several of the objects.
McHugh: We actually talked with the radiologists and had them interpret the scans, and [we] learned how to read them. It allowed us to see not just the outer but the inner surfaces and cavities of a lot of these ceramic vessels. We were working on a number of pieces that we thought were probably usable and that produced sound, and the CT technology allowed us to see that these were musical. They have empty cavities and secret whistling holes.
NAE: For physical models, currently most 3D printing is in plastic, which isn’t ideal for replicas. Are y’all working on taking that to the next level?
Olson: Yes, Julia and I are presenting to our School of Engineering in March and we have some short-term things we'd like to try. That double barreled whistling vessel… we obviously can't pour water in it. Right. Fine. So with a 3D scan, we know the interior, and we can digitally model the acoustics and fluids. But it'd be great to reproduce something that might have the material resonances of ceramic and see what sound it might make without having to put the original at risk.
NAE: How did the art historical and curatorial methods play out in relation to the computational?
McHugh: It ended up being really close and dynamic conversations. Weekly team meetings where I met up with the Wired! team to talk through issues, to exchange ideas, and I was delivering or contributing a lot of the content with my students.
Olson: We really wanted to amplify the curatorial voices. One way of looking at the virtual tours we embedded is that you've got a student curator as a personal guide. My role in Wired! has always kind of been as a translator between tech and the humanities. So I've kind of become a liaison with the museum, working to use the Wired! lab as an R&D space to imagine how they might implement technologies in their spaces and then tackling the problem of how to sustain them.
3D visualization of the double vessel, in the Virtual Exhibition of “Cultures of the Sea: Art of the Ancient Americas,” Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, NC. Photo courtesy of the Nasher Museum.
NAE: Where do you see the future of technology in museums and curation?
Olson: I hope we'll see a breakdown of barriers between the digital and the physical in-person kinds of experiences. Not that one can ever supplant the other, but we can see them in a much more dialectical relationship with each other that, you know, allows you to return virtually or to prepare before you go to the museum to kind of make those on-site experiences much more resonant. And I never worry too much about the digital supplanting things. In our experience, the digital only brings your attention more directly to the objects, the “thinginess” of the things.
McHugh: Yes, I totally agree with Mark that it's not a substitute for the in-person experience at all. I teach a course called the Museum Object where we approach the museum object through different methods, different senses, through all of these different technologies. I think they’re a fantastic enhancement. We get to ask new questions and see how we [can] get to the bottom of them through technology. What more can we do?
Kelli Wood is Assistant Professor of Art History—Museum & Curatorial Studies at the University of Tennessee and a Regional Editor of the New Art Examiner.
Julia McHugh is Trent A. Carmichael Curator of Academic Initiatives at the Nasher Museum of Art and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History at Duke University.
Mark Olson is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University and a founding member of the Wired! Lab.
CT scan of the Double vessel performed by Duke Radiology. Photo courtesy of the Nasher Museum.
Chancay (Peru), double vessel, 1000–1470 CE. Ceramic, 10 inches (25.4 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Photo courtesy of the Nasher Museum.
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