Assyria to America: A Digital Exploration

In addition to exploring the ancient and modern histories of the Assyrian reliefs at Bowdoin, the exhibition Assyria to America, launched in 2019, showcases a variety of new digital approaches to the study of ancient art that the BCMA staff have been deploying across the collections. 

Co-Curated by Sean P. Burrus (Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow) and Professor Jim Higginbotham (Associate Professor of Classics on the Henry Johnson Professorship Fund, Curator for the Ancient Collection, and Acting Chair of Music Department), the exhibition incorporates more digital components than ever before deployed in the BCMA galleries in order to create opportunities for visitors to engage with the art and artifacts on view. Created in collaboration with Bowdoin students and Bowdoin technologists, these digital features include polychrome projections, mapping and timeline modules, RTI and IIIF image technologies, 3D models, installed on touchscreens and projectors throughout the exhibition. 

With the onset of the pandemic and the closing of our galleries, we were creating various online representations of our exhibitions and collections whenever possible and this popular exhibition was an obvious candidate to receive an online treatment. Of course, duplicating the experience of a museum exhibition online is often as challenging, expensive, and time-consuming as the original installation. Pressed as we were with moving so many projects into the virtual environment we made the important decision not to attempt such a large endeavor. On this site the digital components are the main “story.”  Our goal was to highlight the technologies used and to demonstrate their effectiveness for sharing art online. We created a storyboard concept with each section featuring a different technology illuminating one particular aspect of the Assyrian reliefs. Each technology section is summarized below: 

Polychromy. In this section we explore the technique of re-applying color to artifacts that have lost their original pigments over time by projecting light onto the surface. We describe the process and illustrate the possibilities via a slideshow and short video. 

Interactive Timeline. We make use of Knightlab’s Timeline to put the long history of the Assyrian Reliefs and their journey to Bowdoin in perspective for the visitor with embedded videos and images accompanied by descriptive text. 

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). RTI is a computational photographic method that captures a subject’s surface shape and color and enables the interactive re-lighting of the subject from any direction. Using the ISTI – CNR WebRTIViewer we present high-resolution images of all our reliefs that can be viewed from various lighting directions by the click of a mouse or tap of a finger. 

International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF). Making use of OpenSeadragon, our own IIIF-enabled images, and our own custom JavaScript, we created five interactive modules that move the user around the various facets of objects to reveal deeper meaning or information. 

3D Modeling. For the Assyria to America exhibition the curators undertook a project of 3D imaging a statue of the king Assurnasirpal II held by the British Museum. The exhibition offered both a 3D printed model as well as a 3D image on a touchscreen for users to engage with. On this site we were able to duplicate the touchscreen experience using the Smithsoian’s Voyager Explorer. 

Google Maps. Approximately half of the original reliefs that lined the palace walls of Nimrud were removed from the site and are housed today in public and private collections across the world. The dispersal of the reliefs and other artifacts from Nimrud has had important consequences that continue to the present. To provide users with a sense of how these objects have traveled, we use a Google Map with pinned markers where reliefs are known to reside today. Using a data set by Ruth A. Horry built from the research in Klaudia Englund’s Nimrud und seine Funde: Der Weg der Reliefs in die Museen und Sammlungen, the map shows names and locations for each relief.