This interactive virtual catalog – designed to enhance distance learning and research – currently includes 19 works from the collection, the majority of which are on view in the museum's Object Study Gallery, and one painting. Plans call for adding 150 more works.
Users can swipe between pages that show rotating images of sculptures and ceramics from ancient American and Mediterranean, and more recent Asian and African, cultures. With intuitive, multi-touch gestures, images can be rotated, stopped and enlarged for detail examination. Each piece also includes a text describing its history and cultural significance.
The catalog also highlights a wax seal originally located on the back of a 16th-century portrait. The app allows the user to adjust the light direction with their finger to better see the image and inscription.
"Digitization is transforming the way in which scholars and the public will study artifacts," museum director Bruce Boucher said. "With 3-D photography, we shall all be able to examine art as closely from our desks as we can in person – in some cases, with greater clarity of detail on our computer screens."
Nicole Anastasi, the museum's assistant registrar, said the app is "like taking the back tour. It's a way for the public to see what's on the other side of the objects."
Anastasi tested the app with art history professors from the College of Arts & Sciences who "are eager to use it in the classroom to augment the experience of visiting the museum because now you can see sides of these objects that you could never see before," she said. Students she has demonstrated it for "really enjoyed using the app because they can see and interact with the works."
Also, the app will bring the museum's collection to a larger audience.
"We've had local schools in contact about using this app in their early civilization classes," she said. "The great thing about the iPad is that you also can plug it into a projector and see it right on a large screen. It has a lot of potential."
Anastasi worked with Jason Lawrence and abhi shelat, two computer science professors in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, to create the application through their Charlottesville-based company Arqball LLC, which specializes in publishing interactive 3-D content on mobile phones and tablets and enabling new forms of educational materials.
The project is "quite unique," shelat said.
"Apple has created a great platform for combining multi-touch user interaction with interactive 3D graphics. Our mission is to build innovative education technology that seizes on this opportunity," Lawrence said.
Projects like this are "the wave of the future. Other museums are using still images or videos, conventional media to represent their collections. U.Va. is the first museum to have a catalog like this," he said.
A demonstration of the app is available at the Arqball website.
Anastasi said long-term plans include adapting the app for the iPhone.
The Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts funded the project. "It really revolutionizes our ability to engage students and faculty with the close examination and study of objects," Vice Provost Elizabeth Hutton Turner said. "This is not a substitute for experiencing the real things. However, the app actually enhances our ability to see and know them better."