Flagbearers for Technology: Contemporary Techniques Showcase US Artifact and European Treasures
Modern-day technology and the Internet's continued growth have bolstered museums in multiple ways, providing culture-seekers with an interesting choice—pack your bags to take in the aura of collected works and artifacts personally, or go online to find digitized collections from the comfort of your own home. That choice was illustrated in the space of two days in November, with the realization of two ambitious projects. One was the Smithsonian's remodeled National Museum of American History, featuring a high-tech exhibit displaying the famed Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the United States' national anthem. The exhibit room was carefully designed to preserve the fragile banner, nearly 200 years old, while wowing visitors with a virtual experience that evokes the atmosphere of 1820s America. The other was Europeana, a multimedia online library featuring more than two million items from museums throughout Europe. Overwhelming interest quickly engulfed the site, which was knocked offline the same day after getting 10 million hits per hour. It's scheduled to return with upgrades in January.
O Say Can You See?
Most people who have viewed the Star-Spangled Banner say it needs to be seen in person to get a true sense of its enormity. Measuring 30 feet by 34 feet, the cotton-and-wool flag was originally eight feet longer, but suffered heavy wear and tear during its service at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Md. The cloth is pocked with holes from insects and other degradation, and 37 patches cover some of them. One of its 15 stars is missing, cut out as a memento and given away. In addition, a heavy linen backing originally sewn on in 1914 as protection had worn out and was actually making the flag more vulnerable to exposure, so in 2000 more than 17 million stitches were snipped off by hand.
With that level of deterioration, creating the right conditions to preserve and display the flag would be difficult. One hazard—light—stood out from everything else and would prove to be the most challenging to overcome. "Light's the big one," said Jeff Brodie, the exhibit's project manager. "That's the most dangerous thing to the flag itself, all the energy emitted from the light coming to the flag. It breaks down all the proteins within the fibers and breaks down the actual fibers of the flag itself."
To figure out exactly what the flag could withstand and what conditions it needed, the flag's conservators undertook a research program in 1999 that included a full range of scientific analysis. Two wool experts from New Zealand, Ian Weatherall and Fenella France, conducted several tests, including fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to examine the chemical bonds of the fibers' proteins, an amino acid assay that determined light was causing more damage than heat, and a process to artificially age similar wool fibers to match the banner’s physical state, which provided a way to test environmental conditions.
"One of the things we wanted was to do some predictions," said chief conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krause. "That's always a very hard thing in conservation is to do an accurate model that you can test, because you don't want to destroy your object."
The flag enclosure, where conservators could provide a carefully controlled environment for the public to see through a window, would ultimately require several innovations. The two-story chamber was built to be airtight, keeping out smoke, water, and possible sources of ignition. No electricity was allowed inside, so designers had to figure out how to build security and fire suppression systems with severe limitations. Humidity was set at precise levels, and the flag was placed on a viewing table at a 10-degree angle to offset the effects of gravity.
The toughest task was meeting the lighting requirements—to prevent damage, the flag could only be illuminated with one foot-candle of light, roughly equivalent to the dawn's early light that the museum wanted to evoke as part of the exhibit. George Sexton, a museum lighting expert who often works with the Smithsonian, took inspiration from an unexpected source to create a solution.
The initial plan was to point 32 tungsten theater lights through the glass, but maintaining the lights' focus proved to be an issue. Then the lighting team hit upon the idea of using movie projectors, realizing that the machines are built to cover large, flat areas. Sexton said his plan was to use two or three high-quality projectors, but "as this whole thing evolved we realized with the new projectors and the new optics that were coming out, we could actually cover the flag with one projector, which was very exciting."
Sexton went to work, creating a digital mapping of the flag that divided the surface area into a grid of pixels, each measuring about a half-inch and grouped into larger squares to make them easier to work with. The team then created a formula to distribute the measurements for one foot-candle to each group, which numbered in the thousands. Light-meter readings showed that the idea was solid.
"It was within hundreths of a foot-candle, it was that precise, which is extraordinary," Sexton said. "So we have this incredibly even shape of light which is exactly on the flag. We're really excited about what happened."
Brodie and the museum staff were equally enthused, remarking that the lighting helps the flag "pop" when people see it for the first time. "We were very impressed," he said.
The renovated Museum of American History officially opened its doors on 21 November, ushered in with great fanfare and a celebration featuring President George W. Bush. The Star-Spangled Banner exhibit was the main attraction, including plenty of elements to intrigue visitors.
The exhibit's entrance corridor is 75 feet long, punctuated by inclines and decreasing light levels to help visitors' eyes adjust to the dim chamber. Along the way, artifacts from the War of 1812, audio cues, and 3D animations set the scene for the battle that led to the moment when Key spied the banner flying over Fort McHenry, signifying that American forces had withstood an attack from British forces.
"It's a combination of technologies," Brodie said. "Some older technologies such as a scrim show these historical images as well as plasma screens that have a three-dimensional sense, and audio tracks create this entire environment."
Near the flag enclosure, another piece of innovation provides visitors with a way to examine the banner more closely than possible through the chamber window. A 4-by-15-foot interactive table shows a life-size image of the flag and features 120 hot spots, which visitors can touch, move around, and use to call up tidbits of information. The image isn't produced by a touch screen, but by overhead projectors pointed at a Corian table, adjoined by motion sensors to facilitate interaction.
"It's at actual size," Brodie said. "You can really see the stitchwork that [flagmaker] Mary Pickersgill did, you can see the areas of loss and how the threads and fibers are shattered and falling apart. You can see the work that our conservation team did to stitch and couch some of those areas and stabilize them. You can see the patches that have been put in by the family and areas that have been cut away over time. It's really revealing."
A similar interactive flag is available at the exhibit's Web site.
Thus far, the exhibit has proven successful, as visitors have remarked that everything works together to immerse people into the feel of the 1820s. It's an atmosphere that Thomassen-Kraus says will last a long time thanks to the efforts of everyone involved to preserve the flag. "I'm hoping that generations of great-great grandchildren are going to come in and see it," she said. "It is one of those artifacts that speak to each generation."
The World Collected
Museums are increasingly turning to the Internet as an extension of their exhibits, taking a cue from services such as Google Book Search to build enormous digital libraries. Europeana, a new venture funded by the European Commission, took an ambitious approach by collecting more that 2 million digital items from all 27 member states, primarily from France. Its offerings include Ludwig van Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Magna Carta, and Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring." The project's designers hope to build up the site to offer 10 million works online by 2010, envisioning a single Web 2.0 resource for research and cultural learning where visitors can tag objects to help engage the community.
First, however, Europeana's designers have to respond to unexpected demand. The site debuted on 20 November and immediately encountered massive traffic, bogging down the network. It crashed several times throughout the day before site administrators finally took it offline that night as Europeana's managers reformulated their plans.
"We had anticipated, on the basis of expert advice, five million hits per hour," European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr said the following day. "The real interest was three times as strong. Yesterday evening we were approaching 20 million hits by the hour. This slowed down the service to such an extent that it was not really a user experience anymore."
Europeana is administered at The Hague in the Netherlands, and acts as a portal for the digitized works, which are hosted by the museums participating in the program. Following the tremendous response to its debut, organizers are working hard to increase server capacity to meet the demand, and don't expect to be caught off-guard again. The date for Europeana's return has already been pushed back a month to January to fulfill that obligation.
"It's an encouraging signal which shows that citizens in Europe and around the world take a very strong interest in this project," Selmayr said.
Another project, similar in scope to Europeana, is currently in the planning stages and scheduled to debut sometime in early 2009. The World Digital Library is backed by the US Library of Congress, which intends to make significant cultural materials from throughout the world available on the Internet. The project has the cooperation of several organizations, including the National Archives—which will contribute the US Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Federation of Library Associations are also involved.
Already online is The European Library, which includes material from 48 national libraries throughout Europe. The project specifically concentrates on printed material, audio, and video, and includes works from some countries that aren't a part of Europeana, such as Russia. An earlier iteration was online in March 2005, when it was called TEL-ME-MOR.
Other recent museum projects were designed as Web 2.0 catalysts, meant to provide interaction with visitors and provide a learning experience. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, another Smithsonian institution, features an online education resource center that includes blogs, videos, and lesson plans for design teachers.
'There's about 200 lesson plans, and the vast majority are written by teachers," said Caroline Payson, the museum's director of education. "They're about putting design in their classroom. It's a place for them to get support."
So far, Payson said, more than 1,000 users have signed up to participate in the education center, representing about 12 countries.
Also relying on community participation is the steve project, a social tagging research program that uses open source software—created for the project—to help visitors tag exhibits in numerous online museums. Partially funded by the US Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the two-year study to determine the extent that folksonomy can enhance museum experiences concluded in September.
The results reportedly were mixed. In a forum post, steering committee member Jennifer Trant wrote that the terminology used for tags wasn’t always working: "While we'd hypothesized that there might be a tight relationship between tags and search terms, what we found was a much looser coupling."
The project's backers are continuing their research by attempting to reach a broader audience, planning to try cross-collection searches, new interfaces on the tagging tool, and implementing tagging at the physical museums, with the help of kiosks or handheld devices.
Regardless of the project's outcome, steve is an attempt to help museums address a problem created by online globalization—how to meet the needs of a viewing public with vastly diverse interests, education, and ages. Folksonomy is one step to make online works more accessible by describing them in common terms. Digital libraries have made concerted efforts to make their works available and in multiple languages. The European Library includes descriptions of its collections written specifically for non-expert users, translated into 27 languages. The World Digital Library plans to include video descriptions from curators with some of its material. Europeana's approach is to make its cross-domain content interoperable, linking information to help users understand the history and discussion behind online works. All of them make it clear that the concept of a museum is changing, and the goal is to make resources accessible to everyone, from curious browsers to scientific researchers.
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