British Museum blog

Virtual reality: how the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre created a virtual Bronze Age roundhouse

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.

Samsung virtual reality weekend event, 8 August 2015, British Museum. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

Samsung virtual reality weekend event, 8 August 2015, British Museum. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

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.

Interior of virtual reality Bronze Age roundhouse. (© Soluis Group Limited)

Interior of virtual reality Bronze Age roundhouse. (© Soluis Group Limited)

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.

Dr Neil Wilkin recording audio for the virtual reality experience. (Photo: Lizzie Edwards)

Dr Neil Wilkin recording audio for the virtual reality experience. (Photo: Lizzie Edwards)

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

Filed under: British Museum, Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, ,

Mummies, mobiles and 3D printing

Katherine Biggs, Education Manager, Digital Learning Programmes, British Museum

As the doors open on the new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) has launched its own Egyptian season to complement the exhibition’s technological focus. The launch could not have been better timed, with the fantastic news this week that the British Museum and Samsung have been awarded an Arts & Business Award for their long-term partnership through the SDDC.

Talk like an Egyptian – 24 May 2014

The SDDC’s Egyptian season features a series of activities for families and teenagers throughout the exhibition run, and showcases some of the innovative ways in which technology can be used to engage young audiences with the Museum. The first event of the season, Talk like an Egyptian, launched on 24 May, and encouraged children as young as five to put themselves in the shoes of different Egyptian characters from the collection. They then used computer software, microphones and their imagination to bring them to life.

In the Egyptian Galleries. Photo © Benedict Johnson

This week, a completely different activity launches as part of the Marvellous Mummies half term event for families. Families will borrow mobile phones to collect the different objects needed to furnish an Egyptian tomb. Exploring the galleries, children will scan QR codes to understand ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs. Mobile technology continues to be hugely popular with visitors, and for this reason we will also be running our augmented reality trail Passport to the afterlife.

As the summer dawns, so will new activities. In June we will be launching Exploring ancient mummies, a drop-in session for families based in the Samsung Centre where children can use different digital technology to find out more about the Museum’s mummies. Expect digital microscopes, video footage and exciting exploration through our interactive surface table. The activity includes some fascinating case studies from the Conservation and Scientific Research team, which never fail to amaze our young audiences.

3d printer

3D printer at work in the SDDC

Replica amulets and 3D printed copies

Replica amulets and 3D printed copies

The most eagerly anticipated event of the season is our 3D printing weekend. As I write, the printers are in and the filament warming up. Inspired by the exhibition’s beautifully reconstructed 3D amulets, we will be asking children to recreate a choice of three amulets using computer aided design technology: an eye of Horus, a heart scarab or a djed pillar. They will be able to decide on their chosen amulet after handling examples from the collection and discovering the different spells associated with each. The amulets will then be printed in the Great Court, where visitors can also learn about 3D printing and how it is used within different parts of the Museum. To complement this activity, children will then be able to design their own amulet, and ascribe them special powers. These amulets will be brought to life using 3Doodler pens, which create 3D shapes from plastic filament as you draw.

A second day of 3D activities is aimed at our 13-18 audience. Working with a professional 3D artist, participants will animate an Egyptian river scene, using techniques and computer aided design software commonly used by the games industry. They will also have the chance to 3D-print their models. This event was fully booked shortly after it went online, with many adults disappointed that they are too old to join in. 3D printing continues to wow and stimulate thought, and we hope that next weekend will do both.

So that the grown-ups don’t feel left out, we will be opening the SDDC doors as part of the BM/PM Curse of the Mummy event when the Centre will play host to a pop-up Egyptian photo booth using green screen technology, Photoshop and of course props to transport visitors to ancient Egypt. This led us to think that a similar activity for families would be brilliant using a series of five different photo booths with different technology and collection pieces in each one. Hopefully the exhibition will extend its run so that we have even more time to try out new ideas!

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner: Samsung

Filed under: Ancient lives: new discoveries, Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, , , , , ,

New technology in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre

A group of children using tablets in the museum gallery
Richard Woff, Head of Schools and Young Audiences, British Museum

We have recently re-opened the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) after three months spent installing a range of new digital equipment and developing exciting sessions for the Museum’s young audiences. This activity has been prompted by our participation in a project initiated by Samsung, which aims to unleash the educational power of digital technologies, specifically through the use of tablet devices in schools and in other learning hubs.

Back in July, we had a touch-enabled e-board installed in the SDDC and took delivery of more than thirty of Samsung’s newest touchscreen tablets, as well as 24 new wireless-enabled digital cameras. We then transformed some of the teaching sessions we’d been running in the SDDC to take full advantage of the new devices. Having used a range of mobile technology across our offering for young audiences, we had a good idea of what worked well. For example, we know that revealing tablets in a session always produces gasps of excitement and requests to take the devices home at the end of the day; beyond this excitement, we have also seen that tablet devices can promote collaboration between students, thanks in part to the size of the screen.

A group of children using a tablet in a Museum gallery

A group using a tablet in a Museum gallery

The touchscreen interactivity of the tablets can involve students in a way that paper resources cannot, and can also provide links to a range of media, including sound and video. As well as providing the students with information through tablets, one huge benefit for us is that they can also capture their findings on the same device. The photos, text, videos, drawings or voice recordings that are captured on the tablets in the sessions are instantly uploaded to our cloud storage, making it quick and easy for us to send this work back to schools for further study. This is especially valuable in the activities we run in galleries, where the tablets serve to guide the students, prompt responses and investigation and record their findings and experiences.

Children working on the floor, with paper, pencils and a tablet

Children using a tablet as part of an SDDC activity

One of our sessions focuses on Greek temples and aims to introduce children to the styles of Greek architecture and the functions of a temple, as well as to highlight the diverse nature of the Greek world. Previously, children used laptops to build a virtual temple using the British Museum’s Ancient Greece website with the added challenge of a fixed budget which determined how extravagant they could be in the materials they used and the decoration they applied. We have redeveloped the session so that pairs of children use tablets to test their growing understanding of the architectural styles, and then vote on how they want their communal temple to look – as they vote on the tablets, the scores appear on the e-board until a final decision becomes clear. The children also scan QR codes with their tablets to find out more about the city state they represent and to build their temple. All of the children’s tablets are linked to the e-board, so the session leader can easily select temples that demonstrate the diversity of the groups’ responses to the task.

We have kept the overall aims of the session: the children learn lots about temples; they use maths in a practical context; they learn collaboratively; they get to understand something of the extent and diversity of the ancient Greek world and the politics of temple-building – groups of students that go under budget are usually surprised to learn that this might not delight their city’s rulers any more than going over budget. What has changed is the level of engagement through the tablets. The children’s contributions to the session are more meaningful and apparent, all of them are able to contribute equally rather than a small number children dominating, and they are noticeably even more motivated and enthusiastic than they used to be. The teachers are in no doubt about the richness of the experience: “What amazing technology!” one of them commented, unprompted, as her class left the Centre.

Looking to the future, we aim to maximise the capability of these tablet devices even further. For example, we will be piloting the use of tablets for our digital sessions for students with special educational needs, using the range of media they can showcase for interactive gallery visits. We are also looking to expand our family offering across the devices, including a session planned for the New Year where families will make digital sketches of some of the Museum’s Neolithic collection, and then use these sketches to create their own 3D models.

In the middle of our busy summer preparing to re-open, we received the news that Samsung have agreed to fund the SDDC for a further five years until 2019. This not only secures the existing sessions and activities in the SDDC, it offers us the chance to build on an already large and highly innovative programme to make even more imaginative use of digital technologies to engage young people with the Museum’s objects and the cultures they represent.

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung

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Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum In 1991, BMW invited South African artist Esther Mahlangu to make a work of art in their Art Car project to mark the end of apartheid. Her work, with its brightly coloured geometric shapes, draws on the traditional house-painting designs of Ndebele people in South Africa. Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves – their designs are an expression of cultural identity, and can be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation.

See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
#SouthAfrica #history #art #design Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa from AD 1220 to 1290. This gold rhinoceros, alongside four other gold sculptures, was discovered in three royal graves there. They are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today. They depict animals of high status – an ox, a wild cat, and a rhinoceros – and also objects associated with power – a sceptre and a bowl or crown. These treasures were discovered alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads. Gold was mined in the regions around Mapungubwe for trade with the coast, as part of an international trade network stretching as far as China, becoming a status symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

On loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, these gold treasures will be a highlight of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, opening 27 October 2016. Find out more about the exhibition by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #rhino #art #history Our special exhibition this autumn will explore the fascinating history of South Africa through art, telling a story that stretches back 100,000 years.

Rock art is one of South Africa’s oldest artistic traditions. It was first made by the ancestors of San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, South Africa’s first peoples, at least 30,000 years ago.

This rock painting will feature in the exhibition. It depicts San|Bushmen running between eland, a type of antelope that is spiritually important. Hunter-gatherer rock paintings such as this are understood to relate to a ritual practice named ‘the great healing’ or ‘trance dance’, which continues today in the Kalahari outside of South Africa. 
The paintings address the relationship between healers, or shamans, and the worlds of the living and the dead. In the painting some eland are bleeding from the nose and frothing at the mouth. Eland do this when they are close to death, and shamans show similar symptoms when they are metaphorically ‘dying’ and entering the world of the dead during the great trance dance.

Find out more about our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition by clicking on the link in our bio.

The Zaamenkomst Panel. Detail of rock art depicting San|Bushmen running between eland. Made before 1900. On loan from Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections and SARADA. Photo: Neil Rusch.
#rockart #SouthAfrica #painting
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