Lizzie Edwards and Juno Rae co-manage the learning programme for the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, British Museum
It’s the Monday after the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre’s (SDDC) virtual reality weekend and we’re reflecting on the process of developing a virtual reality experience, which puts 3D scans of two British Museum objects from our Bronze Age collection, and one from an item of Treasure that we hope to acquire, into the context of a virtual Bronze Age roundhouse. It’s been a really exciting project to work on, and lots of people have contributed – so we want to share the process behind making it happen.
The SDDC at the British Museum was created in 2009 in partnership with Samsung to provide a state-of-the-art technological hub for children and young people to learn about and interact with the Museum’s collection through school and family sessions. The Museum’s work with Samsung ensures that it remains at the forefront of digital learning, and when Samsung launched its Gear VR headsets we were eager to explore how virtual reality technologies could be used to engage a new generation with British Museum objects. When you put on a Samsung Gear VR headset you feel like you are in a virtual world. When you look up with the headset on, within the virtual world you also look up. You can also ‘walk’ forward and backwards, using a touch pad on the side of the headset. It is a mesmerising experience.
To explore the potential of virtual reality we decided to develop a bespoke experience of a Bronze Age roundhouse, which could be included across the SDDC’s programme for families and schools. We identified the Bronze Age for our virtual reality experience, because it presented a number of opportunities. Firstly, the Museum already has 3D scans available of some of our Bronze Age collection, and finds reported as Treasure, created by the MicroPasts project. MicroPasts is a groundbreaking project that creates open data sources of scanned objects, and crowd sources ‘photo-masking’ to create 3D versions of them. Second, prehistory is a statutory requirement as part of the National Curriculum for primary schools, but we know that teachers sometimes find this subject difficult to teach. The difficultly experienced by teachers is mirrored by families too. We spoke with Dr Neil Wilkin, Curator of the Bronze Age Collection at the Museum, and together defined the potential values of virtual environments for exploring this period with our schools and families audience.
Virtual environments present an opportunity to address misconceptions about prehistory head on, and this period is particularly difficult to grasp for our younger visitors. For example, a virtual Bronze Age experience allows you to convey in a visual way that at this time people had developed complex settlement practices, that they advanced technologies for their purposes, like developing methods to manufacture bronze, and that they had talented craftspeople who created beautiful jewellery. Virtual environments also allow you to present the mysteries and multiple interpretations of objects in a visual way. Questions around the function, purpose and possible ritual practices associated with Bronze Age objects can be presented to the visitor in context, close up and in 3D. Across our SDDC learning programme we try to convey that interpretations of objects are never fixed – they develop and change as new research is undertaken. We often show that multiple interpretations and varied significances for one object can exist at the same time, but 3D virtual environments make conveying this much easier.
To create our virtual reality roundhouse, we recruited Soluis Group Limited, who are experts in creating virtual environments. We chose three fascinating objects from those that had been scanned in the MicroPasts project to be interpreted in our virtual Bronze Age roundhouse – the Woolaston gold bracelet, a Sussex loop bracelet and a large dirk (a short dagger). The three objects are linked by the mystery that they share – there is no certain interpretation of how each was used, or if it had ritual significance.
Developing the experience was a collaborative process. The Museum worked closely with the virtual reality developers to ensure that the Bronze Age roundhouse depicted in our virtual reality experience was based on the latest curatorial research in this area. For this process, two students, Lydia Woolway and Emily Glynn-Farrell, assisted Neil in compiling a research document about Bronze Age settlements and roundhouses. This document included the fact that many roundhouses across Britain have been found with doorways facing in the same direction, seemingly in line with the sun’s path through the sky. Archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson in particular has suggested that light and dark, and the alignment of roundhouses, had ritual significance to Bronze Age Britons. We were keen to incorporate this into our virtual reality roundhouse. The experience also contains audio content, which Neil recorded in the SDDC – turning it into a sound recording studio for an afternoon and using our green screen as a backdrop to get the best sound quality possible. We were delighted with the experience that was created, and the virtual reality weekend was testament to its success.
Today, we’re looking at visitor feedback from the event and considering how we can integrate their comments into our digital learning programme. But having been in the Great Court all weekend, talking to visitors and seeing their excitement at engaging with this experience, we’re delighted with what we’ve created, and how much our visitors have enjoyed it!
Thanks are due to everyone who has been involved in this project, and our amazing team of SDDC facilitators and volunteers who helped out over the weekend.
The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung