Virtual Realities as Storytelling Enhancements for Museums and Archaeological Parks

Paper presented on March 14 by Donald H. Sanders, PhD, at a European Commission Eureka! conference entitled Advancing Archaeological Sites: exploring technology and the theme park experience, Thessaloniki, Greece.

posted here November 11, 2019


Tsoungiza, ancient Nemea, Greece, trench photoWhat's it like to visit an archaeological site? Many sites seem little more than scatters of unrelated stones and holes in the ground (see for example the site at the left; hover over to enlarge). Even archaeologists often have trouble interpreting what they are seeing, without supplemental images or descriptions. Most sites offer visitors a paper guidebook containing perhaps a plan or a reconstruction drawing and some history of the different occupation phases of the site. Some sites provide signage with reconstructions of the ruins at specific locations or vantage points. Some sites have interpretation centers providing slide shows or movies to prepare visitors for what they will be seeing. Some sites still use elaborate sound and light shows dramatizing events that made the location famous. But it is difficult to imagine the complexities of history based on isolated images, a few drawings, or summary explanations. It is difficult to see away later walls and understand the full extent of earlier habitations; it is even more difficult to visualize how artifacts might have been used or to envision people actually living and working at the site.

By the end of this conference, we will have learned many new methods of informing the public so they can understand the nuances of everyday life of an ancient and foreign culture. Many new technologies have come available in the past few years for use in site museums or at archaeological parks to help display artifacts, to inform visitors, and provide background contexts for the history of the place. Some of these technologies use computer graphics, such as, animations, photobubble panoramas, object movies, and augmented reality. Each has its place in dramatizing history; in engaging visitors; and telling stories; providing visitors with surrogate or virtual realities--to transport us to places and situations we could never otherwise appreciate.

Athlit ram photoSo, imagine this: You arrive at a museum or interpretation center and acquire a handheld device to carry with you into the galleries. From its computer screen you select the object displayed before you (for example, the Athlit ram, a bronze Roman-era ramming prow, at the left; hover over to enlarge) and then the storyline that you wish to pursue. The small but very high resolution color screen shows you the object as it would have looked when it was new (see the interactive model below; use the left mouse button and mouse to rotate and zoom).

Athlit ram photoAthlit ram on a shipDepending on the storyline you've selected, it might also show you the object in its original context (see the mockup at the left; hover over to enlarge), or as it was unearthed during excavation, or in comparison with others of its type. As the linked voiceover informs you about the object, it also refers you to the screen where you can select additional text or images or make other choices depending on what sort of information interests you.

Similarly, imagine that you arrive at an archaeological site and go first to the Visitors' Center for orientation. Afterwards you're given a hand-held device to carry with you onto the site. From its computer screen you choose a storyline to follow as you explore the site. Perhaps you select "A Day in the Life" of an ancient inhabitant. The screen then shows you a 3D computer reconstruction of the site as it would have looked in ancient times, the model's position calibrated for the exact spot at which you are located; a narration then guides you around the site's remains through a story of yourself as an inhabitant. Having completed that tour, you might begin again, this time selecting the "Excavation" storyline. As you move around the real site this time, the screen shows you a digital re-creation of your exact location as it looked when rediscovered by archaeologists and at various stages of its excavation. At any time during your tour, you may access linked texts and photographs for more background information about any related artifact, site feature, or person.

Tsoungiza, ancient Nemea, House A interiorI will be speaking today about some of the advantages of using 3D computer graphics to impart alternate realities for visitors to archaeological sites and museums; of providing visitors with portholes to the past. But supplying them with more than pretty pictures, instead with engaging adventures, personalized experiences, and multiple interpretations of the remains strewn before them (see the digital reconstruction of the Early Bronze Age House at Tsoungiza, Ancient Nemea, Greece; c.3200 BC; archaeological data supplied by Daniel J. Pullen, Florida State University; hover over to enlarge). The virtual realities become magical, creating an atmosphere in which anything is possible.

I am not going to talk about the various methods used to deliver the digital images, that will be covered by others, but a bit about how we can use various 3D computer graphics techniques to tell stories, inform visitors, provide educational, engaging, exciting and memorable experiences in ways not possible with traditional visualization modes or media; in ways that can supplement and enhance other themed events and techniques; with goal of offering visitors a glimpse into what happened at the site, who some of the ancient inhabitants were, and why visitors should return again and again.

Several computer-based visualization formats are increasingly becoming part of the archaeologists' arsenal for the collection, study, and dissemination of excavated data. So, too, can these same display modes become part of the site or museum visitors' source of information about a place, time, object, or person.

    Once the precise, accurate, and detailed 3D computer models have been built (and have been checked by archaeologists or other experts), there are several possible output visualization types. For example, there are computer animations (such as at the left; the king ascending to his throne in the Northwest Palace, Nimrud; archaeological data supplied under the direction of Samuel M. Paley, University at Buffalo, SUNY). These are like short movies in that they are linear presentations, there is no user interaction, and there can be voiceovers, sounds, or overlying explanatory text. These are created by having the computer render out a sequence of single images (snapshots of the 3D model as the camera moves along a preset path), similar to the individual frames of a movie or the single cels of a hand-drawn animated cartoons.

Then, there are QTVR movies or panoramas, that either play by themselves, like animations, or require the viewer to navigate by moving around in a circle, as if standing in the center of a bubble the surface of which is covered with flat images of the scene. QTVR navigation is programmed to give the impression that you can look everywhere. But since there is no real 3D space, you cannot walk around, or look behind anything, because your viewpoint is fixed at the center of the bubble (see, for example, the panorama below from our model of the Lion Gate, Til Barsib; left click and use your mouse to rotate and zoom; ed. note 2019: the original presentation used QTVR to display the panorama, but that format is no longer supported by browsers, so we recoded the panorama to run using WebGL/HTML5).

Barsib QTVR as WebGL

3D measuring toolsIn contrast, true virtual reality is a digital surrogate of actual 3D space, allowing the viewer to explore an entire scene, look anywhere, go anywhere, and examine objects closely on all sides (at the left is a screen grab from Learning Sites innovative virtual reality object measurement tool; hover over to enlarge; ed. note 11/2019: the presentation showed this tool in action using VRML, which is no longer supported in current browsers). Since this is a simulated environment you can do anything you can in a real space, and some things you can't, because in VR the laws of physics are optional. Virtual environments can be further enhanced with sounds, animated characters, and the ability to feel objects in the virtual space.

Tantura X shipwreckFor buildings or sites, this type of sensory-laden visualization allows visitors to explore at their own pace, see, hear, and touch things in ways that come very close to a first-person experience, to actually being there (at the left is a screen grab from the virtual re-creation of the Tantura Harbor, Trench X, shipwreck; archaeological data supplied by Shelley Wachsmann Texas A&M University; hover over to enlarge; ed note 11/2019: the original virtual world was shown using VRML, which is no longer supported in current browsers; we are working to upgrade old virtual worlds into the newest WebGL/HTML5 code).

Reliance on these types of interactive computer environments for all aspects of archaeological investigation is the basis of the new fields of Virtual Archaeology and its broader concept, Virtual Heritage. These new disciplines incorporate virtual reality into their inquiries about the past, for teaching, interpreting site remains, visualizing alternative reconstructions, publishing reports, and creating massive research resources. Learning Sites was among the pioneers of Virtual Archaeology back in the early 1990s and continues to be one of its leading proponents and innovators. Virtual reality is an ideal visualization and storytelling technique for archaeological sites and museums, because it can so artfully evoke any time period or situation visitors may be interested in learning more about.

 Site Visits and Storylines

Most visitors to museums or archaeological sites do want to know more about the objects or the remains than can be gained by just looking. Sure, by just looking they can marvel at the beauty of the objects and at the ingenuity of the makers. But without some information about the historical and cultural contexts of the things exhibited or the walls on the site, the experience will be limited. This goes for whether the visitors come by tour bus for short visits or come as learned individuals for extended study.

Nemrud Dagi 1985 photoNemrud Dagi reconstructionThe medium of computer reconstructions to represent artifacts, structures, and even entire sites offers unprecedented possibilities for showing how things originally looked and how they were used (see the sampling at the left; hover over to enlarge). Reconstructions, however, carry a responsibility--as they always have, since the earliest 18th-century archaeological drawings of ancient monuments--the responsibility of presenting the most reasonable and valid conjectures, based on the most reliable data available. We do not want to mislead the public or misrepresent the past. With that responsibility always in mind, we all have used reconstructions for a long time already.

Nemrud Dagi 19th c. drawingWhether drawings or dioramas, they help visitors understand what they are looking at. Digital reconstructions can be so much more immediate, vital, and evocative than traditional paper-based depictions (see the 19th-century drawing of Nemrud Dagi at the left; hover over to enlarge). Computer re-creations are an especially useful tool, because (unlike traditional visualizations) they need not be either static or linear.

By not static, I mean that recreating the appearance of an artifact or a site as a virtual world means creating a digital three-dimensional space. The viewer can fully explore anywhere in the virtual world, for a compelling physical sense of the environment, seeing from many angles, in what feels like real space and time (as we have seen in the my earlier examples of virtual worlds--see interactions above). When the virtual world is worked into a user-friendly web of additional experiences, information, and guidance in the form of text, images, and sounds, the site or museum visitor will eagerly participate in the unfolding of history.

Learning Sites TimeSliderKeep in mind, that there can be more than one virtual reconstruction available. A site can be shown as it is believed to have been at an early habitation period and at any later period or periods, or even as the area may have looked before settlement. A site can be depicted as it appeared before excavation, in the course of excavation, after excavation, and it appears today (this can be done with Learning Sites' innovative TimeSlider, see sample images at the left; hover over to enlarge).

Learning Sites java panelAn object can be shown as it originally was used, and also as it may once have been erroneously reconstructed, or as it might alternatively be reconstructed based on current information. Multiple visualizations of the same datasets are not only possible, but sometimes necessary to tell a complete story (see screen grabs from the Learning Sites' innovative interactive virtual reality database at the left; hover over to enlarge).

And when I say that computer reconstructions need not be linear, I mean that the user can be given choices (of where to explore, what supplemental information to access, or what stories to follow). By comparison, a movie may provide a sense of moving through a space, but the experience has only one possible sequence, the same every time for every viewer. Because of the interactive nature of computers and their ability to store and retrieve vast amounts of information, we can give site and museum visitors the opportunity to guide their own learning or entertainment experience. Let them choose what types of views to see, what subjects of supporting text to read, and where to go next, depending on what they want to learn more about, not based on a preconceived plan imposed on visitors. History was not linear, neither should be our retelling of it.

Northwest Palace, Nimrud, throne room reconstructionWhich brings us to the topic of storytelling. Stories are a nourishment for hungry minds and souls. When we visit archaeological sites or museums, we don't want just dates and names; these are the dry statistics of our school days. We want to be engaged, challenged, entertained; we all like being told stories; the more vivid the better, and so our job is to visually re-create history's tapestries in ways that connect a diverse set of visitors with specific places, times, and events (for example, the Northwest Palace of King Ashur-nasir-pal II, Nimrud, Assyria, 9th century BCE; rendering from the Learning Sites® virtual re-creation; archaeological data supplied under the direction of Samuel M. Paley, University at Buffalo, SUNY; hover over to enlarge). We can do all this very well with computer graphics.

Northwest Palace, Nimrud, throne room reconstruction, king's viewpointThe very nature of the simulated realities presented by the 3D models focus the visitor's attention on a single storyline, present multiple storylines, or personalized storylines, and supplement and complement the other themed technologies and installations (at the left a view of the same throne room, but from the king's viewpoint; hover over to enlarge).

storylinesLet us give visitors a chance to choose among different storylines relating to the artifacts or site (see the list at the left; hover over to enlarge), for example, about: a famous person from the site, a famous event or period, a day-in-the-life of an inhabitant, or the expansion of the settlement from early times to later. Other stories that fascinate many people concern archaeology itself--the discovery and excavation of the site, or how a particular artifact or building was found. Telling the story of a single artifact has always been a part of the traditional museum approach: following along how and when the object was made, how it came down to us, whether abandoned or buried or otherwise preserved, and how became available to the museum public. Yet another approach is to tell the art historical story: the significance of the artifact, structure, or site in relation to others of its kind.

Since computers can hold so much information, numerous choices can be made available. Having chosen a storyline, visitors can be dazzled with the compelling, non-static images that is virtual reality and at the same time choose their own pathways as they proceed to absorb this story. Depending on the chosen storyline, the visitor can move through whichever reconstructions or parts of reconstructions are appropriate, and linked information specific to that storyline can be automatically provided.

In as little as three or four minutes, a visitor can gain not only a sense of how the artifact or site appeared in relation to how it appears now, and some knowledge of how it fit into a larger context of history and culture, but also can come away with a feeling of personal connection on which to build while experiencing the actual excavated materials.

There are many different ways that interactive VR experiences can work to create stories. But the virtual experience can also be enhanced by its method of delivery--to groups on life-size rear projection screens or on 180o wrap-around screens, to individuals on personal VR stations, wearable computers, or hand-held devices. The story can be told by a virtual ancient character or through direct interaction with the overall scene. Always, of course, the emphasis must be on the function of the storytelling as an enhancement to appreciating the actual object, structure, or site. Always the visitor must be pointed to the real thing as the focal point and rationale for the information being presented.


These are some ways by which computer graphics can offer alternative realities to visitors of archaeological sites and museums. Computer graphics are ideal for carrying multiple or single storylines to enhance visitor experience and make necessary connections between the past and the present, the indoor exhibits and the outdoor remains, and the surviving artifacts and walls and the lost evidence of society and history; to connect our lives with those of our ancestors.

inside B300Through the use of interactive computer graphics visitors can feel as though they have been transported back to relive the site's history, as if actually there on vacation or for a conference. Using computer technologies, virtual visitors can even take pictures of the virtual place, record virtual inhabitants' activities, and interact with other timetraveling tourists or scholars (such as was done for an interview with Dutch television; see the image at the left; hover over to enlarge). And when their visit is finished, they could take home a personalized CD of their own experience, whose scope could be extended by linking their personal stories on the CD to relevant Websites.

Throughout human development people have attempted to capture the essence of an experience and make it enjoyable for others. Cave paintings, sculpture, theater, music, and books all offered other views of a place, other experiences, other beliefs, and other times, to stimulate the imagination, to instill wonder about the fantastic, and to speculate about the spiritual. Radio, television, and moving pictures continued a quest for increased realism and of being there. These same presentation techniques (and often the same content, too) were used also to educate and entertain.

Visualization is a recognized means of presenting data and concepts, increasing comprehension and assimilation. Thus, in education, textbooks are illustrated and audiovisual materials are widely used. I have tried to offer here at least some insight into how computer graphics, still a relatively new medium for archaeological sites and museums, can be woven into the storytelling magic that we want to impart to the visiting public.

Close this presentation and return to the Index