This fall, a handful of Krieger School students are being treated to a private tour of three of the world's greatest museums, by way of a mouse click.
In Introduction to the Museum: Past and Present, taught by the History of Art Department's Elizabeth Rodini, students are transported, virtually, to the most significant collections of art, natural specimens, and historic artifacts in the world—the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the British Museum in London, and, of course, the Louvre in Paris.
With a click of the mouse, for example, Rodini is able to pull up a view of Francesco I de Medici's barrel—vaulted "Studiolo" in the Palazzo Vecchio. This stunning "cabinet of curiosities" appears at first glance to be a simple gallery of Renaissance art. But the paintings cover cabinets that at one time contained Francesco's favorite collectibles-seashells, botanical specimens, antiquities. With a slight movement, Rodini "opens" the cabinets to show some of those objects, as they appeared those many centuries ago.
"Museums are important places where our ideas about culture and society get organized," says Rodini, associate director of the Museums and Society Program. "A big part of that is how objects are arranged. We can't explain that to students easily by showing them a progression of single slides."
With the help of junior history major Nora Krinitsky and a grant from the Center for Educational Resources (CER), Rodini selected some 750 images and floor plans from dozens of books and had them digitally photographed. The duo then turned to a sophisticated mapping and software program—previously developed by Hopkins faculty and staff under a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant—to "build" the 3D galleries using the selected images.
By seeing how museum collections have changed over time-both in content and their location within the museum—students can better understand the historical significance of various pieces, Rodini says.
Consider the Rosetta Stone in London's British Museum. In an instant, students can see how this Egyptian artifact has been moved over time from a cluttered space to a spacious hall-a location change that acknowledges and highlights the stone's aesthetic and historic value.
Going forward, as the world's museums change, so will Rodini's map. One of the biggest assets of the tool is that it allows scholars to continue building on it. Rodini, for example, can assign students to particular galleries or objects, asking them to research them and then add images or information.
Krinitsky predicts the mapping project will entice others to study museums. "It may not be feasible to take us all to London or Florence," she says. "But this is a nice way to bridge the gap."