Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Bingewatching Irving Finkel

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

I was searching the archives for something entirely unrelated when Irving Finkel playing the Royal Game of Ur against Tom Scott showed up in the results. Of course I had to watch it all over again because that video is pure joy. That drove me to seek out and rewatch his all-too-short video on how to raise the dead the Neo-Babylonian way. It only whetted my appetite, so off I went to the British Museum’s YouTube channel to see if there are any other Finkelgems out there, and there are. And how.

So first, there’s a whole video dedicated to his deciphering of the rules tablet of the Royal Game of Ur. Halfway through he whips out the cutest artifact of childhood history nerdery I’ve ever seen: a copy of the Royal Game of Ur gameboard that he made with his own hands when he was nine. It’s freaking amazing, of course.

Next, in a return to the eternally popular theme of dealings with the dead, is a discussion of ghosts in Mesopotamia culture. Killer pull-out quote: “I would like to see a ghost. I’ve never seen one; it’s very annoying to me.”

Ghosts weren’t the only problem supernatural creatures ancient Mesopotamians had to counter, contain and appease. In this video Irving Finkel talks about one of the gnarliest supernatural beings in ancient Mesopotamia and how one gnarly demon could ward off the depredations of another. I don’t want to include any spoilers for a five minute video, but one of those beasties played a small but key role in a classic Hollywood horror and Finkel at long last redeems his reputation.

It seems that games were Irving Finkel’s first historical loves. In this video he tells an absolutely heart-warming story of how he was so enamored of the Lewis Chessmen when he saw them at the British Museum as a boy that he spent years buying the beautiful artisan crafted replica chess figures that were then available in the museum gift shop. His family was of modest means and he could only afford to get one at a time on special gifting occasions like Christmases and birthdays. There are 32 pieces in the Lewis chess set, so it took a long time to get the set. In fact, he was still out seven pawns when he got his doctorate. His father bought the last seven for him as a present when Dr. Finkel earned his title.

This touching story then takes an unexpected turn that literally made me laugh out loud. Irving Finkel is not just one of the world’s foremost cuneiform experts, the translator of the oldest game instructions in the world, adorned with a razor-sharp wit and epic beard, but he is an absolute master of shade.

Back to his area of curatorial expertise. Here,  plucked from the very marrow of my unspoken dreams, is Dr. Finkel giving a lesson in how to write cuneiform to Tom Scott, his cheerfully hapless opponent in the Game of Ur, and Matt Gray on the steps of the British Museum. He shows them how to make the wedge-shaped marks with a simple rectangular stylus on a tablet of wet clay and makes it look easy.

Finkel follow up with another lesson inside the museum to a nice fellow named Nick who played a key cameo role in the Lewis Chessmen video. This one-on-one tutorial can get into more detail and I have to say Nick’s finished “Ashurbanipal” after 25 minutes is downright respectable. I’d be thrilled with that result myself.

That would be a top notch home school project, btw. Print copies of the cuneiform code page from the Cuneiform book by Irving Finkel and clay tablet curator Jonathan Taylor, make some play dough with common pantry ingredients and cuneiform your name or Ashurbanipal’s or the dog’s and then bake the tablets in a 200F oven for half an hour to harden them for display. Embed a magnet in the back and Ashurbanipal could be holding up your kids’ drawings on the fridge.

I’ll close with a lecture Finkel gave to the Royal Institution on the history of cuneiform writing. At almost 40 minutes, it is a deeply satisfying jaunt into the material and delivered with his inimitable panache. This man is an international treasure.

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Life and Death in Pompeii on film

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

In 2013, the British Museum staged an exhibition dedicated to the daily lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum and how they were snuffed out by the eruption of Vesuvius. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was a blockbuster, selling more than 50,000 advance tickets and drawing crowds of visitors flocking to see the more 250 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection and on loan from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. The show feature some iconic pieces — the fresco portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife, the “CAVE CANEM” mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, the plaster cast of a dog writhing in its final agony — as well as lesser known but no less remarkable survivors, like a carbonized cradle, a loaf of bread, a life-sized bronze hare mould used to make cakes or terrines.

A private tour of the show was broadcast in movie theaters at the time. The hour-and-a-half film walks viewers through the exhibition guided by curators and experts including Mary Beard and Giorgio Locatelli. It covers the history of the towns’ destruction, the last two days of their ancient existence

It’s got a sexual content warning because of the many explicit artifacts typifying Roman frankness about sexuality that were found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard discussing whether a third figure in a fresco of a couple in a reverse cowgirl posture was part of a threesome or an ignored slave or a voyeur is good clean fun, as far as I’m concerned, as is her discussion of the triple-phallus wind chime ( “phalluses to the power of x” “with bells on!”) and the one about the “more hardcore” Pan-goat statue.

Seven years later, the British Museum has uploaded the complete film to its YouTube channel. It’s one hour and 27 minutes long and even so not nearly long enough for me. They should have made it a mini-series. Pompeii Live is free to view, of course, but like so many of its brethren, the museum has been hard-hit by the extended closure, so if you’d like to help support it, donate here

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Celebrate the raising of the Vasa

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

It’s been 59 years since the pristine wreck of Vasa, the Swedish warship commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf which sank less than a mile from dock on her maiden voyage on August 10th 1628, was salvaged from Stockholm bay. It  broke the surface of the waters on April 24th, 1961, where, floating on pontoons, sprayed constantly with harbour water, it was excavated for five months. For 27 years it was conserved at a temporary location at the Wasa Shipyard. In 1988 it moved into the Vasa Museum and ever since then has been one of Stockholm’s most visited tourist destinations with more than one million visitors each year.

As the museum is closed for the time being, you can celebrate the anniversary with some teletourism. Here is the Vasa Museum’s Director of Research Fred Hocker talking about the complex salvage operation that raised the Vasa while simultaneously giving us a tour of the ship.

Next up, Hocker’s guided tour of the king’s cabin, or rather, a replica of it.

Museum guide Lisa orchestra of carved wooden putti in steerage. I’m embarrassed to say this is the first explanation I’ve heard of why the space was called steerage and I appreciate that a term now synonymous with the cheapest, least comfortable passage possible described the antechamber of the king on the Vasa.

In this video museum Educational Officers Lotta Wiker and Emilie Börefeldt explain how the Vasa was raised, illustrated with models of various stages of the salvage.

That’s just the tip of the contact iceberg. The Vasa Museum broadcasts live streaming video  of tours, stories, concerts from the museum every weekday at 4:28 PM, ie, 16:28, the year the ship was launched to its immediate demise. The broadcasts are live on Instagram and are also uploaded to the museum’s Facebook page. English-language videos air on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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From the Met’s film vault

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

This year is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate their sesquicentennial, the Met has been uploading movies from their vast archive of films about art going back to the 1920s.

The Met’s Office of Cinema Works opened in 1922 when the moving image captured on film was less than 30 years old. The medium was still considered the cultural inferior to its cousin the so-called legitimate theater. The Met was one of the first museums to embrace its great education potential. The Office of Cinema Works produced films that would be screened first for museum members and then to visitors. It filmed the museum’s excavations in Egypt and made documentaries about the museum, objects in its collection, artist profiles, explanations of different artistic techniques.

Because the Office’s mission was educational, from its earliest days in 1922 the films it produced were made available for rent to other museums, schools and societies. The Met soon did brisk business in film distribution as well as production. They also pioneered the use of safety film. To be able to send their films to more screens and make them as easy and safe to use as possible, in 1928 they moved from the industry standard 35mm nitrate film to 16mm non-flammable acetate that could be screened with portable projectors.

The Office of Cinema Works was active through 1935, and its descendants at the museum continue to produce films about art well into the 2000s. Most of the 1,500 treasures in its climate-controlled vault have been in permanent retirement, however. Starting in January of this anniversary year, From the Vaults has been releasing a film from the archive every Friday, beginning, as is only right and fair on the Internet, with a film about cats.

Earlier this month, From the Vaults released a self-referential gem: The Hidden Talisman, a 1928 historical romance/ghost story that was filmed at the original Cloisters. The faux medieval setting is very apt to the drama. The first Cloisters was only in use for 24 years, from its opening in 1914 until the Met Cloisters as we know and love it today moved to its current location in 1938, so this film is a rare glimpse into a long-gone classic.

Here’s another great early one from 1924 about the Met’s Armor Galleries.

View the rest of the treasures from the Met’s film vaults on the museum’s YouTube channel.

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Virtual guided tour of Pompeii’s Regio V houses

Saturday, April 11th, 2020

There is a great deal of online content from museums and historical sites right now. I could never get enough of that kind of programming even before quarantine because most of the treasures of the world are out of individuals’ reach anyway just due to cost, time and distance. Virtual visits bridge those gaps, and while nothing can replace the in-vivo experience (is cyberStendhal Sydrome a thing?), they can open up vantage points that could not possibly be explored in person.

Today’s example of this comes to us from the eternal font of archaeological wonder that is Pompeii. The exploration of a previously unexcavated section of Regio V has been immensely production, discovering, among other big finds, a row of houses with balconies, the remains of a man found in a Wil E. Coyote-like posture under a stone and the beautifully frescoed walls of the House of the Garden.  The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has put together a video tour of two of the Regio V houses with stand-out features: the House with the Garden with its frescoes and the House of Orion, named after a floor mosaic of the mythical hunter being placed among the stars. 

Narrated by Director Massimo Osanna who is able to pack an incredible density of information in every sentence, the video uses high-definition film captured by drone to give us a fly-through view of both homes. It offers breathtaking bird’s eye views of Pompeii before swooping down into the House of the Garden and then on to the House of Orion. It’s like an archaeological Space Mountain with Walt Disney as your guide. The only negative is that it’s not twice as long and I’m hoping there will be more such videos to come.

The narration is in Italian and the auto-translated closed captions are as bad as ever, but you can follow along with the English transcript here

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Tour the Winchester Mystery House

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

The famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is closed until at least April 7th, but the museum has compiled a comprehensive 41-minute video tour for our remote enjoyment.

The manchester was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of rifle tycoon William Wirt Winchester. When he died in 1881, his wife inherited a huge fortune in cash and stock, making her worth a half billion dollars in today’s money and one of the richest women in the world. Legend has it — and it is very much legendary as Sarah left no correspondence or journals on the subject, nor did any family, friends or loyal employees ever volunteer an explanation — that, devastated by the loss of her husband and daughter, she sought the advice of a Boston medium named Adam Coons. After a séance, he told her that she was haunted by the thousands of Civil War soldiers and Indians who had been killed by Winchester firearms, and that the only way to appease the vengeful spirits was to use the Winchester money she’d inherited to build them a house. Another origin story claims that a medium told her she would die as soon as the house was finished, so she saw to it that construction continued until her last breath. There is zero evidence that any of this ever happened.

In 1884, she moved to California and bought a 161-acre farm in Santa Clara Valley from Dr. Robert Caldwell. There was a modest eight room farmhouse already on the property, but Sarah’s vision was far vaster. For 38 years, she had her crew of carpenters and masons work in shifts so construction continued 24-7, 365 days a year. (Again, this is the legend; somebody probably took some time off now and again.) built and built, creating a mansion with hundreds of rooms, rooms-within-rooms, unfinished rooms, mazes of corridors, dead ends, staircases that are short cuts from one part of the house to the other, staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up to walls, doors that open to the outside two stories up, small doors, big doors, cupolas, turrets, windows of every shape and size, skylights in floors, prime numbers, especially 13, everywhere. There was even a seven story tower at one point, but it was destroyed in the 1906 Frisco quake.

When she died on September 5th, 1922, work immediately stopped. There are still nails half-hammered in to the walls. The rich reclusive widow and her labyrinthine mansion were already famous by then. The villa was known as the Spirit House and rumors abounded of nightly séances, copious hauntings and “evil spirits” confounded by Sarah Winchester’s architectural follies.

She left her estate to the charities she supported, dedicated employees and family. The furnishings of the house were sold and the mansion itself opened to tours in 1923. Millions of visitors have trod its eccentric floors in the century since then. You can now join them virtually from the comfort of your home, maybe chasing the tour with a viewing of the horror thriller Winchester starring Helen Mirren now showing on Showtime and streaming on Hulu.

You can also buy discounted ticket vouchers for a visit to the mansion that will be valid through May 2021. The vouchers cost $26, $13 off the regular ticket price. The income from the voucher sales will help keep the lights on and food on the table for the museum’s employees while the Winchester House is closed.

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#UffiziDecameron

Sunday, March 15th, 2020

More than once over the past few weeks I have thought about the Decameron, the early Italian-language masterpiece written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the mid-14th century as the Black Death ravaged Tuscany, the peninsula, the continent. In it, 10 youths, seven women and three men, flee plague-ridden Florence and hole up in a villa in the countryside for two weeks. To alleviate the boredom of their self-quarantine, they tell each other stories for 10 nights of the 14 (with exceptions for the two Sundays, and one day per week dedicated to chores which is rather impressive roommating considering the circumstances, actually). By the end of their stay, they’ve told 100 stories.

With all of Italy on lockdown, museums and heritage sites closed, people stuck in their abodes for days at a time, the Uffizi Gallery has launched a digital Decameron to entertain and console the shut-in with photographs, videos and stories shared on all its social media platforms — Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram — under #UffiziDecameron.

The Uffizi picks from the immense wealth of artworks in its Gallery of Statues and Paintings, in the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, posts a photo or clip, and their social media curators explain the background and meaning of each piece. The first video posted was a wordless tour of the Boboli gardens with aerial and terrestrial footage that is just breathtakingly beautiful. The second is a tour by museum assistant Cristina De Caro of the Uffizi’s Contini Bonacossi collection, something I knew not a single thing about before today.

The portrait by Bronzino of Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de Medici, wearing an exquisitely brocaded gown, her arm draped around the shoulders of their son and heir, is world-famous. Less well-known is the ring Cosimo gave her for their wedding: a Roman intaglio stone with matrimonial motifs (cornucopias, intertwined hands) he had set by Florentine goldsmiths. It is one of very few surviving examples of secular gold work from the early Medici dukes in Florence today because the family treasure was so widely dispersed. The reason it’s in the Uffizi today is that Eleonora was buried with it. It was found when the remains of the 50 Medici family members buried in tombs in the walls of San Lorenzo were moved to the crypt under the church in 1857.

Over on Instagram the quarantine festivities kicked off with a 19th century painting by Vincenzo Cabianca of a scene from the Decameron. More recently they posted a riveting explanation of the complex imagery in a section of the Siena Duomo’s unbelievable inlaid marble mosaic floor designed by Pinturicchio in 1504. 

As a companion to the Uffizi Decameron initiative, the museum will also publish images, video and content dedicated to Raphael. It’s the 500th anniversary of his death this year, and the Scuderie del Quirinale museum in Rome was hosting an unprecedented exhibition dedicated to the Renaissance master. My plans to write about the show were derailed by horror, so it warms the cockles of my broken heart that the Uffizi, which loaned 50 of its works out of the 200 or so on display, will be sharing online what cannot be shared in person right now.

“Even if museums have had to close their doors, art doesn’t stop,” explained Uffizi director Eike Schmidt. “This is why from now on we will address our public also through Facebook. The treasures of the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitta and the Boboli Gardens will keep you company in these weeks of the common commitment against the spread of the virus. Today we begin Uffizi Decameron: as in the masterpiece by Boccaccio, every day we will tell stories, the works, the personages of our most beautiful museums, uniting us in the name of culture, of art, and — why not — of amusement. The Uffizi will be with you, in your homes, to overcome all together the current moment of difficulty. We avoid all contagion, except that of beauty.”

So much lump in throat right now. Hai tutto il mio amore, Italia.

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Smithsonian releases 2.8 million free images and more

Friday, February 28th, 2020

The Smithsonian Institution has released 2.8 million images from its digital collection for broad public use, and that’s just for starters. The Smithsonian Open Access initiative removes copyright restrictions from images and data, releasing its vast database into the public domain with a Creative Commons Zero license, meaning digital files can be used in any way, including for commercial purposes, without requiring permission or even attribution.

Museums like the Metropolitan, Getty and Rijksmuseum have been making high resolution images of their collections available online for personal or non-profit use in recent years, including the Smithsonian which already has more than 4.7 million images from its collection available for personal use. The Smithsonian Open Access program expands the scope of digitization by a cultural institution, extending the use license to CC0 for nearly 3 million of those images, plus much more.  Any digital asset owned by the Smithsonian — research data, text, sound recordings, 3D models and more — is being designated open access. More will be added on an ongoing basis, with more than 3 million images designated open access by the end of the year.

All of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo contributed images or data to this launch. The program includes content across the arts, sciences, history, culture, technology and design, from portraits of historic American figures to 3D scans of dinosaur skeletons.

Visit the Smithsonian Open Access portal to search the digital collections for high-resolution 2D and 3D images. You can also browse by platforms like Learning Lab for K-12 educational resources and Figshare for research datasets. The Smithsonian has also published open-source tools for the creation of 3D content. Use Voyager to view one the museum’s 2,200 3D models or to author and publish your own.

Open access furthers the Smithsonian’s mission which has been the same since its founding in 1846: for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.“ Remarkably, the Smithsonian’s founder James Smithson, an English chemist and mineralogist who died in 1829, provided some blueprints for the initiative. His biographer Heather Ewing talks about Smithson’s view that the natural world could only ever be understood with many people participating in, assembling, and sharing information. Smithson used commonly found objects when conducting his experiments so others could replicate his experiments as he sought to understand everything from snake venom to ancient Egyptian pigments to improved methods for making coffee.

“It is only by exchange and mutual assistance that naturallists [sic] can possibly ever succeed in assembling together a collection of subjects of their study, which nature has made so numerous, and disseminated in such various and distant parts of the world,” James Smithson

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Janet Stephens is back!

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

It’s been more than a year and a half since Janet Stephens posted one of her epic historic hairstyling tutorials using period-accurate tools and it’s been three years since the last Roman hairstyle. Now she’s back with an intricate 9-strand braid worn by the Empress Herennia Etruscilla in the mid-3rd century A.D.

The 3rd century was a chaotic time for the Roman Empire. After the assassination of the last Severan emperor, Severus Alexander, in 235, the combination of internal political turmoil, civil wars, Germanic invasions, increasing expansion of the Persian Sassanid Empire, economic depression and plagues, nearly drove the empire to collapse. By 268, like the Gaul of Julius Caesar’s time, the empire itself was divided into three parts — the Gallic Roman Empire (Gaul, Britannia and Hispania), the  Palmyrene Empire (Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor) and the Roman Empire (Italy). It would be reunited under in 270 by Aurelian, builder of the walls around Rome. The Crisis would come to its full end with the ascension of Diocletian in 284, 26 dead emperors after it began.

So when Herennia Etruscilla was getting her hair did by extremely nimble-fingered ornatrices, she was enjoying what would be a very brief window of time at the top. Her husband Decius was acclaimed as emperor in September 249 after he killed his predecessor Philip the Arab. His reign lasted less than two years, ending with his death in battle at the hands of the Goths in June 251. His and Herennia Etruscilla’s oldest son and co-emperor died with him. Their youngest son, 13-year-old Hostilian, succeeded to the throne, but only as co-emperor to the troops’ choice Trebonianus Gallus, and only for a few months before his death either from plague or at the hand of said Trebonianus Gallus.

During those few months of Hostilian’s rise to the purple, Herennia Etruscilla acted as regent. Almost nothing is known about her life, but thanks to the devaluation of currency and the constant cranking out of coinage, we have a surprisingly rich record of her portraiture. There are 13 different coins from aurei to sestertii that feature her profile with views of her elaborate hairstyling.

From one of those coin portraits, Janet selected a nine-strand braid arranged in a column style, meaning in a single thick plait up the back of the head. It requires a dexterity beyond my comprehension and hair of such length and thickness that it’s no wonder it took Janet a decade to get to this look. It is truly a masterful feat of patience and skill. My one regret is that she wasn’t able to include the stephane — a Hellenic style of diadem that comes to a point in the front — that Herennia Etruscilla Augusta wears in all of her coins.

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Lumière’s train in 4K

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, filmed by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1895 and first shown to an amazed public in January 1896, has gone upscale, 4K upscale, to be precise. Urban legend has it that when audiences first viewed the train barreling towards them on the screen, they screamed and ran for the back of the room. There is no evidence that any such reaction actually happened, no contemporary accounts of it in the press or police reports, but the Lumière Brothers’ thoughtful camera placement certainly created a dynamic 50 seconds of film that caused a sensation.

Surviving prints of the original 35 mm film, while still perfectly viewable, show their age; they’re grainy, faded, scratched. Upscaling film using photochemical restoration methods costs tens of thousands of dollars. Videographer Denis Shiryaev used Gigapixel AI software, an application that deploys artificial intelligence algorithms to fill in the gaps in the images and upscale the 125-year-old film to 4K. He also used the freeware app Dain to interpolate missing frames. That’s a lot of bang for very few bucks.

Shiryaev’s digital restoration benefitted majorly from a source video that had already been restored, eliminating the striations, bubbles, stains, etc. and giving him a pristine slate.

Comparison time! Here’s a version of the original with an assortment of defects typical of old film:

Here’s the digitally restored version Shiryaev used as a source:

And here’s Shiryaev’s 4K, 60 frames per second upscale version:

I’m fascinated by the richness and depth of the images, but it’s giving me a bit of an uncanny valley vibe too. He also made a colorized version which is even uncannier.

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