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App to tell the stories behind Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Architecture

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, 5:12 p.m.

It is easy to pass by the plaster cast of the top of a column from The Tower of the Winds inside the Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Architecture and hardly notice it, maybe even miss it completely.

The block hangs on a wall in the back of the hall, dwarfed by the columns, facades, doors, archways and pulpits that dominate the room.

It was included in the 110-year-old collection because of its style, but architects at the dawn of the 20th century knew little about the tower or its purpose.

That it was built to record the weather, especially the winds, and housed an elaborate water clock, wouldn't be learned until decades later.

And the typical visitor to the museum likely wouldn't know either, said Francesca Torello, an architecture historian in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture.

“This collection requires you to know the stories; otherwise it's just grand, and you can't move on from that,” Torello said.

Torello and a team from the university and the museum hope an app will start to change that.

Starting Nov. 1, visitors to the Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Architecture will be able to learn more about certain pieces in the collection by looking at them through a tablet. Called Plaster ReCast, the app uses augmented reality technology to display more information about select pieces, shows photos of the original and even builds a virtual copy of the entire building.

Torello and Joshua Bard, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture, worked with a team of students at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center to design the app.

“It makes this collection much more alive,” Torello said.

The museum's plaster cast collection is the third largest in the world, rivaled by only the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cité de l'Architecture & du Patrimoine in Paris. The Carnegie Museum of Art has more than 140 pieces, all plaster cast copies of iconic architecture from Athens, Rome and the Middle East.

It was a way Andrew Carnegie tried to bring the world to Pittsburgh. Instead of embarking on a grand tour of architectural masterpieces in the western world — an out-of-reach trip for all but the wealthiest in those days — people could come to the museum to study the great works. The collection was assembled around the turn of the 20th century and opened in 1907. Little has changed since.

“We know it's an awe-inspiring space, but we know that the visitors need more information and want more information,” said Alyssum Skjeie, program manager of the Heinz Architectural Center, who helped organize the app and a series of programs in the center to provide more context to the collection.

Pieces in the Hall of Architecture have small plaques next to them with short descriptions but not much else. Skjeie said adding more text or posters here and there to describe the pieces in more detail would clutter the space.

“People now are mostly relying on reading a name and Googling it themselves,” Skjeie said.

Up the stairs in the Heinz Architectural Center, Skjeie has pulled letters and documents from the archives showing how the collection came together. Other exhibits in the center show visitors how plaster casts are made and how 3-D printers are changing the way architects make and use models.

Downstairs in the hall, museum employees will be on their toes to keep people with their heads perhaps buried in the tablet from backing into a priceless plaster column and knocking it over. The pieces themselves have become artifacts of history, some copies of ruins that have disappeared or further decayed in the past century.

The early version of the app contains detailed information about three pieces in the collection, the column capital from The Tower of the Winds in Athens, a paving stone from an Assyrian palace in Nineveh — what is now Mosul, Iraq — and a column from the Tomb of Mausolus in present-day Turkey. The museum might add more pieces if early feedback is positive.

“There is so much about this hall that is no longer accessible,” Bard said. “A lot of the pieces have almost Indiana Jones-esque stories behind them, stories of conquest and adventure.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, shown Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017,  will be launching an augmented reality app called Plaster ReCast which will allow visitors to view 3-D scans of plaster casts, 3-D CAD models of the original buildings from which the casts derive and historical and archival documents.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, shown Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, will be launching an augmented reality app called Plaster ReCast which will allow visitors to view 3-D scans of plaster casts, 3-D CAD models of the original buildings from which the casts derive and historical and archival documents.
Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, shown Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, will be launching an augmented reality app called Plaster ReCast which will allow visitors to view 3-D scans of plaster casts, 3-D CAD models of the original buildings from which the casts derive and historical and archival documents.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, shown Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, will be launching an augmented reality app called Plaster ReCast which will allow visitors to view 3-D scans of plaster casts, 3-D CAD models of the original buildings from which the casts derive and historical and archival documents.
Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, shown Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, will be launching an augmented reality app called Plaster ReCast which will allow visitors to view 3-D scans of plaster casts, 3-D CAD models of the original buildings from which the casts derive and historical and archival documents.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, shown Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, will be launching an augmented reality app called Plaster ReCast which will allow visitors to view 3-D scans of plaster casts, 3-D CAD models of the original buildings from which the casts derive and historical and archival documents.
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