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Recreating sensory experience: How haptic technology could help us experience art in new ways

f.taylor13 July 2020

Inspired by a most unusual 17th-century engraving, in this blog student Ethan Low (UCL Bachelor of Arts and Sciences) explores how haptic technology could help us understand what an artist felt at the time they created their work by recreating their sensory experiences.

For me, and I suspect many other people as well, interacting with an art piece is a process of finding peace. It is a private sanctuary, a quiet place, where you communicate with the artist on the themes of their work. A great deal of this communication is facilitated by knowing the contexts of artworks, in addition to the experiences and personalities of the artists, as told to us by curators.

But what if there is limited information about a certain artwork? Are there other means of opening up dialogues with works we know less about?

Enter Claude Mellan’s enigmatic masterpiece, The Face of Christ, also known as the Sudarium of Saint Veronica. The Face of Christ is a piece which rewards the inquisitive; viewed at a distance, it appears to no different from hundreds of other engravings from the 17th century. The imagery depicts the titular true face of Christ, which according to Christian myth, was imprinted on a sudarium, a sweat cloth for wiping the face, offered to Jesus by Saint Veronica.

The Face of Christ / Sudarium of Saint Veronica by Claude Mellan

The Face of Christ / Sudarium of Saint Veronica by Claude Mellan (1598-1688), UCL Art Museum

Upon closer viewing, I realized an astonishing fact; the entire image is formed by a single spiral line! Variations in line width convey the appropriate shadows in darker spaces much like the more well-known technique of cross hatching. This is complimented by the inscription below the image, which means “the unique one made by one / [like] no other”. Although some have suggested that Mellan was following in the contemporary tradition of creating representations of the sacred sudarium, (Raissis, 2014) not much else is known for certain about the work.

The Face of Christ / Sudarium of Saint Veronica by Claude Mellan  The Face of Christ / Sudarium of Saint Veronica by Claude Mellan

Detail of The Face of Christ by Claude Mellan (1598-1688), UCL Art Museum

Drawing from the concept of embodied knowledge in cognitive science, I am inclined to believe that the full depth of what Mellan felt and thought as captured in his mysterious line may be unlocked through the application of haptic technology (Low, 2020).

This was the primary subject of my Arts and Sciences Final Year Dissertation, supervised by Dr Kat Austen, the reason why I visited the UCL Art Museum early this year to meet with Dr Andrea Fredericksen, where I had my first encounter with The Face of Christ. The unique qualities and enigmatic nature of Mellan’s engraving were the primary reasons why I chose to use this artwork for the project.

Embodied knowledge refers to knowledge that is learnt and conveyed by the body, as an inseparable extension of the mind (Martínková, 2017). Neuroaesthetists Freedberg and Gallese (2007) take this further by suggesting that through embodied practices, we may be able to learn emotions felt by artists of the past.

Copying or mirroring the gestures used in the creation of artworks, they argue, could be a vehicle for us to empathize with long-dead artists. And if we think about it, this is not quite a crazy as it sounds; the motion and pattern of various marks or brushstrokes made by an artist is, after all, directly tied to their physical motion and what they were feeling when making the artwork.

Haptic technology, specifically capacitive touch sensors, was the tool I chose to allow a viewer to learn the gestures used in the creation of The Face of Christ. Haptic technology refers to any technology that can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user. You can find examples of haptic technology in every day life, including game controllers and joysticks.

Through an audio feedback loop, the device I designed takes in touch inputs from a viewer of the artwork and returns a religious-sounding choral soundtrack when the spiral gesture from the engraving is drawn correctly with a finger (Low, 2020). The spiral gesture was directly extracted from The Face of Christ with the help of a custom python script which made use of various image analysis libraries (Low, 2020).

Demonstration video of the artwork-viewer haptic interface (Low, 2020)

In this way, the device would teach you to trace the exact same line used by Mellan to draw the line of his masterpiece! There is still much to improve upon this very basic technology demonstrator, such as finding a way to convey pressure and associated line width, but the possibilities are certainly exciting. Like other tactile-based approaches to redesigning museum experiences, it is my hope that the technology will contribute to the ongoing effort to introduce more elements of touch and interactivity into exhibits and galleries (Howes, 2014).

Who knows, perhaps someday in the near future, we might even be able to mimic the stippling motion of Monet, or Pollock’s strong erratic strokes. The experience will probably not turn ordinary people into masters overnight, but it will bring us one step closer to seeing and, more importantly, feeling as they did.

References

Cherdieu, M., Palombi, O., Gerber, S., Troccaz, J. and Rochet-Capellan, A., 2017. Make Gestures to Learn: Reproducing Gestures Improves the Learning of Anatomical Knowledge More than Just Seeing Gestures. Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 8(1689).

Freedberg, D. and Gallese, V., 2007. Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, [online] 11(5), pp.197-203.

Howes, D., 2014. Introduction to Sensory Museology. The Senses and Society, [online] 9(3), pp.259-267.

Low, E., 2020. What Are The Possibilities Offered By Haptics In Enhancing Understanding Of Artworks? Developing A Prototype Artwork-Viewer Haptic Interface. Undergraduate. University College London.

Martínková, I., 2017. Body Ecology: Avoiding body–mind dualism. Loisir et Société / Society and Leisure, [online] 40(1), pp.101-112.

Raissis, P., 2014. The Veil Of Saint Veronica, 1649 By Claude Mellan. [online] Artgallery.nsw.gov.au.

Available at: www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/340.1997/?tab=about  [Accessed 4 July 2020].

Teaching in the Grant Museum

Tannis Davidson15 October 2018

Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

At UCL, Term 1 is now fully underway – ID cards have been issued, classrooms have been located and routines have been established. Object-based teaching has also begun at the Grant Museum where students from UCL and throughout the London area will have the opportunity to use museum specimens in their practicals.

During a typical academic year, around 2500 university students use the Grant Museum collection as part of their formal coursework on a wide range of courses including zoology, palaeontology, the history of art, geography, museum studies, communication and even dance. The Museum and its collection is also used by students for project work and postgraduate research or as a testing ground for museum engagement, new technologies and visitor research.

The Grant Museum invites use of its collection for teaching to any faculty at UCL. We’re pretty good at what we do (if we do say so ourselves), because we’ve had 190 years of practice… (more…)

Specimen of the Week 353: The exploded crocodile skull

ucwehlc27 July 2018

Specimen of the week this week is the skull of a giant predator which has been subject to a very special preparation method. The result is not only educational, but is surely the specimen of the week with the coolest name ever, allow me to introduce…

 

LDUCZ-X121 exploded skull of Crocodylus porosus (saltwater crocodile)

LDUCZ-X121 exploded skull of Crocodylus porosus (saltwater crocodile)

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Ordinary Animals in the Classroom

Tannis Davidson6 December 2017

The Grant Museum’s current exhibition – The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The Boring Beasts that Changed the World ­­- explores the mundane creatures in our everyday lives. Here on the blog, we will be delving into some of the stories featured in the exhibition with the UCL researchers who helped put it together.

Guest post by Dr Brendan Clarke (UCL Science and Technology Studies)

Some biological principles are hard to understand from words and images alone, because life exists in three dimensions. This is where museum specimens come in.

However, some features are too small to observe in real life. Alongside microscope slides, wax models of enlarged embryos were widely used to teach biology between 1850 and about 1950. Most of the wax models in the Grant Museum collection represent exotic material – hard to obtain or to handle – like this series of human embryos produced by the Ziegler studio in Germany c1880:

LDUCZ-Z430 Ziegler Studio wax model series showing the development of the external form of human embryos

LDUCZ-Z430 Ziegler Studio wax model series showing the development of the external form of human embryos

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Specimen of the Week 286: The Notebook Models

Tannis Davidson7 April 2017

Practical Zoology Notebook

Student Notebook 1911

As is often the case, it is difficult to choose a single specimen to highlight in this blog. The Grant Museum has 68,000 specimens and each one has a story to tell. Sometimes the stories are connected and link specimens together in unexpected ways, which is why this week’s focus is on a quartet of specimens, rather than one.

At first glance the four specimens may not appear to have much in common. One is a glass jellyfish, two are wax models of different parasitic worms and the other no longer exists. What they do share is a common history of use, artistic beauty and legacy. This week’s Specimens of the Week are…
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Specimen of the Week 275: Mystery wax models

Tannis Davidson20 January 2017

In a departure from tradition, this week’s blog will focus on what we don’t know about a specimen, rather than what we do know. The reason being is that the specimen in question is rather mysterious. All of the usual pieces of information which can help identify a specimen are lacking  – no number, no entry in the accession records, no associated documentation and no taxonomic information.

A perfect candidate for some major research which is why it was ‘auctioned’ as a mystery object to this year’s students taking part in the Collection Curatorship class as part of their MA in Museum Studies at UCL. The aim of this course is to introduce students to the core skills of a curator : to understand objects and how to research them.  Luckily for us, the ‘natural history’ group chose this specimen and are about to flex their collective research muscles in order to help identify this specimen…

Grant Museum of Zoology Mystery wax models

Grant Museum of Zoology Mystery wax models

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Specimen of the Week 258 : Pteraspis models

Tannis Davidson23 September 2016

LDUCZ-V733d Pteraspis sp.

LDUCZ-V733d Pteraspis sp.

In a few days time the autumn term at UCL begins along with the many classes and practicals which take place in the Grant Museum. In the first term of last year, the Grant Museum held 28 specimen-based practicals using 770 specimens. Over 1300 UCL students from various departments attended these practicals as part of their course work.

To celebrate the return of the autumn term, here’s a specimen which will be used several times in the next few months in the ever-popular Vertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

Specimen of the Week 244: The historic wax flatworm

Tannis Davidson17 June 2016

LDUCZ-D44 Fasciola hepatica

LDUCZ-D44 Fasciola hepatica

Since its inception in 1828, the Grant Museum of Zoology collections have always been used for teaching. This continues in the present day and the Museum welcomes students from across UCL for a wide variety of specimen-based practicals, course work and research projects.

Today we maintain detailed lists of specimens which are used in classes but I’ve often wondered what the early object-based teaching practicals looked like and which specimens were used.

Fortunately, the Museum has some relevant archives which have identified an extraordinary specimen that had been used in teaching at UCL 130 years ago. It is not only one of the oldest specimens in the collection, but also one of the most beautiful.

Take a journey back in time with this week’s Specimen of the Week…

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Conserving a thermopile in UCL Science and Engineering Collections

Emilia L Kingham24 March 2016

Thermopile, Physio-062

Thermopile, Physio-062

My name is Dae Young Yoo and I am the MSc. Conservation student placement with UCL Museums and Collections.  One of my objects that I have been assigned to research and conserve is a thermopile from the Physiology Department.

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The Mystery of the Giant Golden Mole Skull

zcbtekp16 February 2016

A mystery skull in bag – ready to identify. LDUCZ-Z850

A mystery skull in bag – ready to identify. LDUCZ-Z850

Crawling blindly through tunnels under layers of dead leaves in the coastal forests of South Africa lives the giant golden mole. Most people don’t know it is there, and neither did I until I was presented with the skull of one this October. As this species lives exclusively in a tiny region on the Eastern Cape – most people have definitely never seen one! Who would have guessed that identifying this skull would be the start of my newfound love for these unlikely animals. (more…)