IT Students Create Virtual Gallery for Museum Collection

A man using VR goggles to see artwork.

Right: A user in Fang Wang’s Virtual Reality Lab views a virtual exhibit through VR goggles. Left: An example of what users would see when viewing the VR gallery.

Mizzou Engineering students are putting the final touches on an interactive art exhibit that will allow visitors to view paintings without ever stepping inside a museum. The exhibit is being created digitally for a virtual reality (VR) experience.

The project will be part of the Together for ’21 Fest to celebrate Missouri’s 200th year of statehood. The event will be held on the MU campus and Center for Missouri Studies August 5-8.

Visitors will be able to put on VR goggles, explore the collection and zoom in on single paintings. When an image of a painting expands, text providing more information about the piece will appear.

Fang Wang Portrait

Wang

“This was a great project to allow students to put their skills to use in a real-world application where people are going to download and consume the content,” said Fang Wang, an assistant teaching professor in the Information Technology Program, who oversees VR classes and labs.

For the initial project, students were free to decide how to best display the works. They are now getting input from curators at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology to make adjustments for the final gallery.

Some students created virtual frames around the pieces, while others “mounted” images of the paintings directly on digital walls. They also created various lighting effects for each piece. Charles Sielert, a recent IT graduate who is volunteering for the IT Program, took the lead on modeling the rooms, which also feature digital benches and elaborate flooring. The students also matched wall colors to the themes of the artwork; for instance, a room showcasing paintings of Missouri’s rivers is blue, while an agricultural-themed section is green.

Virtual Considerations

The virtual gallery will feature 98 paintings from the Museum of Art and Archaeology, the entire Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney Collection, originally called Missouri: Heart of the Nation, said Alisa McCusker, the Museum’s Curator of European and American Art. The collection was commissioned in 1946-47 by the owners of the St. Louis department store Vandervoorts to represent the urban and rural landscapes of Missouri, as well as various agricultural, industrial, cultural and recreational activities from across the state.

Having the ability to display these pieces in a virtual environment provides flexibility not available in the museum’s physical setting, she said.

“When I begin curating an installation or special exhibition, I have to know the parameters of the space before I can begin seriously making selections of artworks,” she said. “In our spaces, we can adjust wall colors, lighting, framing (with lots of restrictions), the placement of artworks, as well as the labels and other signage, but we cannot easily create separating walls and, of course, we cannot create more space.”

The ceiling height of the physical museum also poses problems with some pieces. Because it’s a lower ceiling, larger pieces may appear compressed while other works are too large to be displayed at all.

In the virtual space, McCuscker is now working with the students to finalize framing, lighting and the arrangement of pieces after getting her first look at the work last month.

“My initial thoughts are that these students are doing some very impressive work, and they’re lucky to be learning from such a capable team of faculty and assistants,” she said. “I am excited to see the result of their collective talents and skills with the final product.”

Want an innovative education that lets you use emerging technologies in real-world settings? Check out the IT Program at Mizzou Engineering!

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