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Beyond the Wall

January 8, 2021
scupture being photographed
Student Collections Assistant Isabel Leininger assists in capturing a 3D image of a small sculpture from Rapa Nui.

The UW Art Museum goes virtual to make its works accessible to a wider audience.


By Nicole M. Crawford


How can you visit a museum when the doors are closed? While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced museums to think about this issue and adjust on a quicker schedule than anticipated, the University of Wyoming Art Museum is prepared. Museum staff thought over the last few years about how to engage with audiences from around the world, and so the museum has partnered with units campus that have the technology and expertise to help move the museum’s collections and exhibitions onto a virtual platform. 

In an ongoing project that began two years ago, the Art Museum has partnered with UW Libraries Digital Collections to 3D scan a large collection of objects from Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. The collection consists of over 180 small sculptures carved from volcanic rock, stone and wood. The objects were collected by William Mulloy Jr. (1917-1978),

a former anthropologist at the university, and were gifted to the museum after his death. Student employees at the museum are assisting to carefully photograph these objects from every angle. It takes about 10-15 minutes per object to create a comprehensive model with photogrammetry, which means only eight to 10 objects are completed in each 2.5-hour session. The ultimate goal of the project is to share objects and knowledge between the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum on Rapa Nui and the UW Art Museum without moving objects across borders.

Thinking even bigger, the Art Museum is also working with the Shell 3D Visualization Center in the School of Energy Resources to capture entire exhibitions digitally to provide an immersive experience where a visitor can virtually maneuver through the museum gallery and zoom in to see specific artworks. In addition to reaching a greater audience, these virtual galleries allow for exhibitions to live on beyond their time on the museum walls.

The Art Museum is also looking for new ways to share our collections with students and faculty, especially in the time of COVID-19. As a result, UW class visits look a little different these days. Usually artwork is pulled from storage and placed on tables in the Resource Room, where the students can get an up-close view of the piece of art—a more intimate experience than viewing the artwork displayed in the galleries under glass. The Art Museum staff tackled the problem of how this can be translated to a virtual platform. Working as a team, the museum’s staff is providing virtual visits for UW classes. This involves essentially setting up a small film studio in the hallway where the collections are stored. Students can ask for the team to zoom in on a specific section and sometimes are actually getting a closer view than they would in person.

The Art Museum is grateful to have access to these units on campus that have graciously provided their expertise and equipment. As this technology isn’t cheap, the Art Museum is grateful to Wyoming State Library for a CARES mini-grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that allowed for the purchase of new portable LED lights to improve the video quality of virtual class visits.

While nothing can replace visiting a museum and viewing artwork in person, the UW Art Museum is working hard with partners on campus to make the museum accessible for all people, wherever they are located.

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