“Museumverse” Student Project Wins First Place at Keller Center Innovation Forum

Dec. 14, 2022

Bridging the Gap between Art and Technology, this Winning Idea Brings Cultural Heritage to Life

Congratulations to Department of Art & Archaeology graduate students Mengge Cao, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, and Michael Zhang along with Shruti Sharma (Electrical and Computer Engineering), for winning first place and $15,000 in the humanities and social sciences division of the 17th Annual Keller Center Innovation Forum with their enthralling project, Museumverse.

Funded by a Flash Grant from the Humanities Council, Museumverse applies emerging virtual reality technologies to curatorial, pedagogical, and research strategies in art history.  Digital Asset Management systems, 3D/2D data capturing and processing, and mixed reality technologies are among tools Museumverse employs to bridge the gap between art and technology. Museumverse is working with a cohort of graduate students, museum professionals, and tech and digital humanities specialists interested in exploring the possibilities of virtual reality.  Collaborating with Princeton University Art Museum, Historical Society of Princeton, Morven Museum & Garden, and the Drumthwacket Foundation for its inaugural virtual exhibition, the Museumverse team underscores the importance of community engagement.

“Our goal is to empower arts and cultural institutions to explore new ways of public engagement and research using innovative technologies,” said Mengge Cao, who gave the winning presentation at the Innovation Forum.

Mengge Cao delivering the winning presentation at the Keller Center Innovation Forum

Mengge Cao delivering the winning presentation at the Keller Center Innovation Forum. (Photo/Michael Zhang)

When asked what social impact they envisioned Museumverse having, the team cited the example of artist Jeffrey Yoo Warren’s using virtual reality technology to reconstruct Providence’s Chinatown from historical photos. The team sees virtual reality playing a crucial role in reconstructive history, largely on behalf of underrepresented communities.

Small museums nationwide also represent exemplary beneficiaries of Museumverse technology.  With smaller budgets and limited staff, these institutions can take advantage of virtual reality technology to showcase their niche collections and local identities. The primary benefits for small museums are threefold: first, virtual exhibitions eliminate the barrier of physical distance, making the most remote collection easily accessible; second, the digital assets based on small museums’ collections have the potential to generate additional income; third, the VR-powered interactive experience attracts younger audiences, who are crucial to the future well-being of small-museums.  

Museumverse team standing in front of Drumthwacket

The Museumverse team at Drumthwacket. (Photo/Mengge Cao)

Showcasing Princeton’s Cultural Heritage

Museumverse’s demonstration exhibition, which combined objects from Princeton’s local collections, illustrates the powerful potential for experiencing cultural heritage. The exhibition featured a sterling silver punchbowl made by Tiffany and company in Newark New Jersey for the commissioning of the USS Battleship in 1906, now preserved in the Drumthwacket Foundation.  Viewers are able to closely examine the bowl’s decorations, including shields that represent the state, the country, and the navy. The bottom shows two figures who also appear on the New Jersey state flag: Lady Liberty holding a staff and Goddess Ceres who represents the successful harvest. To address the technical challenge of capturing the bowl's reflective surface with the structured-light 3D scanner, the team used photogrammetry to build up the model.

A dress sword belonging to Captain Robert Field Stockton, a Navy officer active in the mid-19th century, was also on virtual display. Stockton also served as the first president of the New Jersey Colonization Society, which promoted the removal of freed slaves to the west coast of Africa. The sword’s hilt features an eagle head pommel and a large oval counterguard engraved with acorns and oak leaves as symbols of strength and prosperity. The scabbard is decorated with a ring of 13 stars, a fouled anchor, and oak twigs. The scabbard was digitally reconstructed based on the multiple scannings of separate parts in storage at Morven Museum and Garden.

Finally, viewers could admire a silk brocade dress representing the earliest extant French-labeled dress with an American connection. It belonged to Julia Stockton Rhinelander, a prominent member of the Stockon family in Princeton whose grandfather signed the New Jersey declaration of independence and was a delegate to the continental congress. Born in 1793, Julia grew up on the Morven estate on the outskirts of downtown Princeton. The dress is now preserved at the Historical Society of Princeton. To fully capture the dress, the team conducted two rounds of scanning, with the dress laying flat and on a form.

In Spring 2023, the Museumverse team plans to collaborate with the Princeton University Art Museum and the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University to implement new technologies in research, design small-scale virtual exhibitions, and facilitate teaching. 

Inspired by Princeton University’s motto, “in the service of humanity,” the team strives to reimagine the future of small museums. And with Princeton as their base, they envision cultivating collaborations worldwide. 

Virtual reality view of interior exhibiting a dress, sword, bowl and other objects.
Virtual exhibition room featuring collection highlights from the Historical Society of Princeton, Morven Museum and Garden, and Drumthwacket Foundation