A Jerusalem museum ventures into VR and 3D imaging to open new exhibit

Musrara brings to life portraits and videos of an exchange program with Native Americans in new digital format

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Since the start of the coronavirus, museums have struggled to find ways to virtually capture their audience.

One museum, Musrara, the Naggar School of Art and Society in Jerusalem, recently took the plunge with its latest exhibit — a virtual photographic and video look at the Native American world with the help of 3D developer Tal Haring, who created VMUMU, a new virtual space at Musrara for exhibits.

“There’s been a lot of video done with curators, and it’s a solution, but it’s not the most engaging,” said Haring, who teaches three-dimensional and interactive video at Tel Aviv University and other institutions. “It basically ends up being like a Google Street View of the museum.”

In Haring’s VMUMU, users use their computer mouse (or keyboard arrows) to explore three galleries of Musrara’s historical structure, where the museum students and artists portrayed their video and portrait works.

The digitized entrance to Jerusalem’s Musrara museum, now using 3D imaging to show a new exhibit to visitors (Courtesy Musrara)

The exhibit itself almost becomes an aside in this experimental method of museum visit (which involves a good amount of trial and error on the part of the user).

Maneuvering around takes some getting used to, but once one is accustomed to using the computer mouse or arrows on the keyboard to move around the screen, it’s easier to focus on what’s on display — in this case, the portraits, sounds and symbols of the Native American society.

Titled “The Smoking Mountain Lawetlat’la,” the exhibit is based on an exchange program the Musrara students took part in with Wisdom of the Elders, an American organization that works to preserve Native American culture.

The Musrara students and Avi Sabag, Musrara’s director, founder and curator of this exhibit, visited Native American reservations and communities in Oregon and Washington State last winter, just before the coronavirus.

It’s hard to imagine that they were in the Native American world just a few months ago, wrote Sabag on the exhibit website, but their experiences and the necessity of finding new ways to present their works led Sabag and Haring to forge this new digital path.

The exhibit brings to life the people they met and the rituals they discovered through portraits, video and sound.

The main gallery in Jerusalem’s Musrara museum, now using digital reality to display a new exhibit during the 2020 coronavirus (Courtesy Musrara)

Haring scanned Musrara’s galleries while still empty, and then worked with Sabag to create a digital exhibit of the artworks that are virtually “hung” on the museum’s walls.

The “Smoking Mountain” exhibit is the first being shown in the digital gallery, and other exhibits will open up in the same virtual space.

“It makes it into a digital museum,” said Haring. “There’s an opening for unending creativity, because you see Musrara the building, but there’s atmosphere as well.”

Haring and his brother, Yuval Haring, had used the first weeks of the coronavirus to brainstorm creative ideas for cultural outlets, starting with virtual parties that used three-dimensional scanning to create virtual worlds, scanning Tel Aviv streets and hangars and producing online raves attended by people’s avatars.

“It was totally weird and campy but it really brought us somewhere,” said Haring. “Everyone was looking for entertainment and we came up with a solution.”

Now he’s bringing his ideas to the more established cultural world, and in particular to museums, which want to continue creating exhibits but are stymied by closures.

The three-dimensional experience and virtual reality viewing offer visitors the chance to immerse and engage themselves, without looking up and down the screen and seeing flat objects, said Haring.

“It’s a conversation that’s getting going now because of the coronavirus,” he said. “People didn’t understand why we needed these technologies and now they do.”

The use of 3D and virtual reality has already been taking place in the music and gaming world, with rapper Travis Scott performing as a digital avatar in a ten-minute concert produced by video game “Fortnite,” watched by more than 12 million players and then replayed four times, for a total of 27.7 million gamers.

Then Grammy award-winning singer John Legend used digital animation to capture his movements on a live stream that were then transmitted to a digital avatar for a live 17-minute concert in support of his campaign to end mass incarceration for African Americans.

“This conversation is now opening up, and it’s about finding digital solutions in the world of art,” said Haring.

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