It's been a long time. We've been busy! Or, Augmented Reality meets Old World European Collection at the Riversdale House Museum, Courtesy of the Collaboratory

It's been a long time. We've been busy! Or, Augmented Reality meets Old World European Collection at the Riversdale House Museum, Courtesy of the Collaboratory

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Imagine you are a prominent socialite living in Bladensburg, Maryland, Washington, D.C., or even Philadelphia, in early 1816. Rumour abounds that Rosalie Stier-Calvert, wife of George Calvert, the prominent planter from the first family of Maryland has consented finally to show her father's collection of paintings from Europe in the couple's home Riversdale. The collection, sixty-three paintings, most of which she has kept crated up virtually since they first arrived with Henry J. Stier in 1794, contains works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Brueghel, and others. Names you know, works you do not. Excitement builds.

Such was the scenario in late winter/ early spring 1816, when overnight Riversdale became the destination of art lovers as far-flung as Boston and Philadelphia to see works around which much legend and lore had grown in the over twenty years that they had been in America, in crates. And now, with Napoleon safely defeated in Europe and as a result the works to be returned back to Henry J. Stier in Antwerp, Rosalie Stier-Calvert has consented to hang all the works in the house for one great and glorious show.

The Riversdale House Museum is recalling this fascinating moment in the history of the family, the house, indeed, even the development of the history of art in this country, in an exhibition telling the story, "Some of the Finest Paintings ever in America," a title taken from a description of the collection from one enthused visitor in a letter to her sister.

Samantha Ferris, head of Education at the Riversdale House Museum (and a Maryland and Department alumna!), approached me in August 2015 about how the Collaboratory might be able to help them employ digital technolgies to tell this story. She was inspired especially by Augmented Reality, which she had seen showcased at the Collaboratory in June 2015 during a one-day symposium for area heritage centers and museum organized by Nicole Riesenberger and me.

In the intervening months, Nicole and I, along with Caroline Paganussi, have designed a number of interventions using Augmented Reality to complement the wonderful show Riversdale staff have mounted. The show focuses only on sixteen works that can be identified from the various inventories of the Steir collection, although it is known that sixty-three paintings in fact were present. While Riversdale staff are limited to framed reproductions, most, but not all, to scale, Augmented Reality is a platform that allows Collaboratory staff to enhance visitors' experience of the works themselves, including displaying them at correct size, in period hanging solutions, and with glorious detail made possible by pinch-and-zoom action on the iPad tablet. It's of piece with what I like to call "picking the low-hanging fruit."

The particular platform used, Aurasma, uses visual triggers to unlock media content, and Quint, Caroline, and Nicole are pushing this platform to deliver content beyond simply enhanced visualizations of the works on display. For instance, Nicole and Quint recorded video of conversation between Historian Susan Pearl and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Curator of Northern Baroque Paitning at the National Gallery of Art and Professor of Art in the Department, about the original April 1816 show and have edited several clips that visitors can access throughout the show, including an introductory video. Nicole also has developed an exhibition-related website,, that allows visitors to explore the movement of the works in the exhibition from the Stier collection to their modern-day repositories. This content is triggered, appropriately, next to a hands-on crate, where visitors can pull out some of the paintings that Rosalie kept packed away until their brief star turn in April 1816. The story of Rosalie keeping the works crated for over twenty years allowed for one of the more exciting Augmented Reality moments of the show, one that Riversdale staff had not planned for: using Augmented Reality to allow visitors a glimpse of  what the west wing looked like in the early nineteenth century, when it was a carriage house with a platform on which crates were stored, not the elegant paintings gallery of today. Finally, Caroline, who already is quite expert in developing user surveys, has employed her experience and knowledge to good effect developing both digital and paper surveys of user experience in Riversdale. Both the Riversdale and the Collaboratory teams will use the resulting data, along with observational data, to assess quantitatively and qualitatively the effectiveness of Augmented Reality in enhancing the overall visitor experience.

Make sure to visit Riversdale during the run of the show, which is up through October. Riversdale is open Fridays and Sundays, 12-3:30. If you want to follow the Collaboratory's Aurasma channel (you can also check out AR interventions for Madeline Gent's exhibition "Manhua + Manga" in the Art Gallery), search for MichelleSmithCollaboratory within the Aurasma app.

Congratulate Caroline and Nicole when you see them!