Discovering Ghent Altarpiece with Holograms!
June 29, 2022
This post was written by Elena Pessina, MediaCombo’s Project Manager living in Milan, Italy, who is also a Museum Educator Ambassador with Europeana.
When you enter Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, your eyes directly go up, to look at the magnificent Gothic arches that run through the naves and lead to the altar.
The city’s most famous attraction is the masterpiece by Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck, the Ghent Altarpiece or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a large and complex polyptych full of symbols, completed in 1432. It has an intriguing story - having to be removed from sight and hidden to avoid destruction by the Iconoclasts in 1566; then some of the panels were stolen during the French Revolution, and it was hidden again in WWII, finally to be rescued by the Monuments Men, and recently restored to its original glory. Amazing!
I was surprised to see the option of taking an AR tour using Microsoft Hololens2, so, why not? I have to say it was a good experience!
At the entrance to the crypt, the point of access to see the artwork, I was surprised to see the option of taking an AR tour using Microsoft Hololens2, so, why not? There is also a tablet option but I chose the AR tour because I wanted to see how the holograms interacted with the architecture and physical objects in the crypt.
And I have to say it was a good experience! During the tour, you interact and control the story with your gaze, which is really important for accessibility because people who have difficulty moving their hands can enjoy the visit.
The hologram of Bishop Antonius Triest welcomes you, telling the story of the cathedral through the centuries, standing over a physical model that transforms while the century passes. A ringing bell functions as an audio cue to look for footprints to follow on the floor to discover the next chapter of the story.
The holograms opened like a window into the past and seeing the characters at full height in the physical space made me feel as if we were sharing that space together.
My favorite part was being in the artist’s studio, watching Van Eyck paint while his attendants helped in preparing the colors. The holograms opened like a window into the past and seeing the characters at full height in the physical space made me feel as if we were sharing that space together.
Another section I loved is the one that describes and magnifies the details of the Mystic Lamb before looking at the actual work!
It took four years to produce this experience. AlfaVision, the studio that created it, wisely decided to alternate moments in which holograms were not present so you only listened to the narration while looking at the physical objects, a welcome respite to balance and rest your eyes.
I chose the Expert version of the tour which lasts for 60 minutes before coming face-to-face with the original masterpiece. At the end, I have to say, I felt a little tired because it’s a lot of work to switch back and forth between the virtual and physical experiences. There are shorter versions available to ensure that every member of a family or group can experience the tour at his/her own level. Everything is offered in nine languages.
The use of holograms in this case really enhances a visitor’s experience by allowing them to learn in a new way by adding layers to the physical world that allow them to “be” in the story.
In terms of accessibility, it was easy to onboard and follow the different chapters of the story throughout the crypt. The AR experience was designed exactly to fit the space and as it was the first time I had this kind of experience in a “museum setting” I enjoyed it a lot. Even if you are standing close to another person, or have someone in front of you, you can clearly see everything thanks to the holograms.
One thing that I would add is more written cues. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious that you could move around the objects or lean out a little to see better inside the studio, for example, by slightly changing position.
A really nice experience though, that leads you and allows you to enjoy this masterpiece even more.
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