Aug. 15, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 1

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    Museum closed? It's virtually impossible!

    The Oriental Institute Museum has become the world's first museum to use a new, movie-like computer program to operate exclusively in cyberspace.

    As a result, people from around the world can "walk through" the museum's galleries -- filled with rare exhibits of ancient Egyptian and Nubian art, Assyrian stone reliefs and sculpture from some of the world's earliest civilizations -- without leaving their desks.

    The Virtual Museum -- launched in conjunction with the closing of the museum's galleries for extensive renovations -- is arranged to allow visitors to go from gallery to gallery either by clicking on a spot where they would like to "stand" or by selecting a category of artifacts. Visitors then see a panorama of the museum's galleries, similar to what they would see if they were there in person. People are able to simulate a museum visit by clicking on photographs of artifacts to move in closer to them and using a virtual-reality program to "walk" around the gallery. The program, Apple QuickTime VR Player, is available free through the Internet.

    The site address for the Oriental Institute's Virtual Museum is http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/MUS/QTVR96/QTVR96.html.

    "Although we had to pack the collection in connection with the renovation, we knew it was important to make the artifacts available," said Emily Teeter, Assistant Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum.

    "An exciting prospect is that our collection is now available to anyone who has access to a computer, not just to people in the Chicago area," she said. "In some ways, you can actually get more information about the collection through this virtual visit than would be available in an actual visit."

    This additional information includes inventories of the objects, with more details of their origins than would normally be found on a museum label, as well as bibliographies and, in some cases, photos showing the excavation of the artifacts.

    "We envisioned this project a year ago," said John Sanders, Research Associate and head of the Oriental Institute Computer Lab, "but had to wait until early this year for the technology to be available and really viable. We plan to keep adding more sophisticated features, such as the ability to directly access information about an object in a particular case, as the technology becomes available. This project has been a good way for us to explore how computers can be integrated into the galleries when they reopen in spring of 1998."

    In addition to Sanders and Teeter, the developers of the site were Oriental Institute Museum Director Karen Wilson, Research Archivist Charles Jones and Photographer Jean Grant. Technical assistance was provided by Chad Kainz and Peter Leonard of the University's Multimedia & Visualization Center (Academic Computing Services).