VR museum ‘Augmented Curiosities’ encourages visitors to explore African artifacts in immersive ways


Shveta Shah/Daily Senior Staffer

Visitors of “Augmented Curiosities” can wear a virtual reality headset and see the exhibition in an entirely virtual world.

Shveta Shah, Assistant Illustrations Editor

On Main Library’s fifth floor, visitors can grab a virtual reality headset and be virtually immersed in material culture from an African collection.

The exhibition, called “Augmented Curiosities: Virtual Play in African Pasts and Futures,” uses augmented reality and virtual reality technologies to generate an innovative user experience with objects from Northwestern’s Herskovits Library of African Studies.

Statues, fans, dolls and busts from the library’s collection sit in a specially designed cabinet. Users can scan QR codes to load versions of the objects on a phone or iPad, allowing them to virtually place the objects on pedestals, turn them around and resize them. Using a VR headset, users can also interact with the cabinet in a virtual world.

Northwestern third-year Ph.D. student in archeology and exhibition curator Craig Stevens said he drew inspiration from other industries making a departure from physical objects.

“It’s like what Google did to libraries,” Stevens said. “I wanted to play with the dematerialization of an exhibition experience.”

Stevens chose the objects he wanted to display himself, with each artifact having its own significance. For example, a 1951 wooden and paper fan from Liberia celebrates the reelection of the country’s 19th president. A beaded Zulu doll crafted in 1999 helped raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. 

Stevens said he had never seen anything like his exhibit done before, praising coworkers who “took an idea inside my head and made it very real.” He said he appreciates how the extended reality components allow for a more playful and joyful viewing experience overall. 

The use of extended reality technology in museums is still experimental, Stevens said. The visitor experience in museums has remained fairly static over the years, he said, so he’s hoping his exhibition serves as an example of what more museums can do.

Building out an entire museum using extended reality was an arduous task with many technological issues surfacing along the way, Stevens said. So he worked with a team at the NU Media and Technology Innovation center to develop his showcase.

MTI Developer Vince LaGrassa built the augmented reality component of the museum. While AR technology is still new, LaGrassa said he already sees value in integrating AR in museums. 

“You can interact with objects in a way that you couldn’t if they were just behind glass,” Lagrassa said.

Herskovits Curator Esmeralda Kale said she hopes this project helps raise visibility for the library’s collections and engage people in new ways.

Kale said the library doesn’t display most of its numerous artifacts. That’s why showing objects like these helps educate the public about Africa.

“Each object is a window into another object or experience,” Kale said. “This opens the window into conversations about new objects or places.”

Matt Taylor, the director of Weinberg’s Media and Design Studio, visited the exhibit to explore how technology could be used to expose various artifacts.

He said being able to virtually grab objects felt satisfying and helped build trust between the curator and the viewer.

“When objects are behind a glass cabinet, something about it just feels synthetic,” Taylor said.

The Herskovits Library has one of the largest collections of objects spanning the continent of Africa, according to Kale. Stevens said he decided to pursue his Ph.D. at NU because of the library’s vast resources. 

Stevens said the reception to the exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive. The exhibition is available to view for free in University Library until Friday.  

“People have expressed so much gratitude and hopefulness,” Stevens said. “Some have even taken off their VR headsets and given me hugs.” 

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Twitter: @shvetashah17

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