Closer to Johannes Vermeer

The Rijksmuseum has put together an unprecedented exhibition of works by Johannes Vermeer that will open next month. Only 37 works firmly attributed to Vermeer are known to exist, and 23 of them will be on display in this exhibition. Many of them are on loan from museums around the globe, including The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and Woman Holding a Balance (The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.).

To accompany the exhibition the Rijksmuseum has crafted an exceptional virtual exploration of all of Vermeer’s paintings. It truly is an exploration, a guided tour of Vermeer’s oeuvre that takes the fullest possible advantage of digital technology to give viewers an in-depth view of each of his 37 known paintings. The English language narration is by Stephen Fry who, as seen in his TV documentary series, is an outstanding tour guide.

The intro opens with a tiled screen of thumbnails of every painting by Vermeer. Each thumbnail is clickable if you’d like to peruse specific works, but I highly recommend the tour because it does a masterful job of putting the paintings in the context of Vermeer’s life and evolution as an artist.

The exhibition divides Vermeer’s work into 13 chapters with unifying motifs. The tour begins with “Into the City,” exploring the View of Delft and The Little Street and placing Vermeer’s artistry in the context of the city where he was born, lived and worked. I really enjoyed this section because it’s a walk-through of the 17th century city as seen through Vermeer’s landscapes. Fry identifies some of the buildings as we go along and then segues neatly into The Little Street through the cloudy sky they have in common.

Girl with the Pearl Earring is in Section 8, The Look of Seduction, which groups her with three other Vermeer beauties with soft eyes and glistening lips. They are all “tronie” portraits, a type of study painting with fantasy elements of lighting, expression and clothing that painters created as workshop exercises. There was no actual sitter. All four of Vermeer’s tronies are wearing pearl earrings and unusual headgear.

You can jump around through the chapters by hovering over the right side of the screen and navigating the menu or you can just let it ride and go in order. Either way, it’s easy to pick up where you left off, and you might very well have to do because there is so much to see for an artist with such a small total output.

This is one of the best virtual exhibitions I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of them. It is written in a personable, light-hearted style that still manages to be incredibly information-rich. The way they zoom into the detail of the paintings to illustrate the commentary is flawlessly paced and takes full advantage of the ultra-high resolution photographs. Fry explains changes Vermeer made based on the most recent imaging and research into his process. There are also annotated areas of each painting which you can click on for a shot of additional information. The notes open in windows that have click-through images, so every note is really multiple notes. Then when you’re done exploring the nooks and crannies, you click back to the main tour and the narration picks up where you left off. Whoever designed this is a content management genius, seriously.

Alexander Graham Bell recordings to be restored

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has embarked on a new project to recover and restore its collection of 300 experimental audio recordings made by Alexander Graham Bell and his laboratory between 1881 and 1892. These are some of the world’s oldest sound recordings and they have never been heard by living ear.

Bell and his colleagues, including his cousin Chichester Bell, created the recordings first at the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C. and later at his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh Estate, in Nova Scotia. They used a variety of recording media, all of it in its infancy, some of their own invention, and stored pretty much everything — the sound recordings, the devices used to record and play them, their notes — with the Smithsonian as soon as they were produced to ensure they had an unimpeachable documentation and ownership trail to support any patent applications that came out of the experiments.

The recordings were never published, and quickly became unplayable as the devices stopped working and the delicate materials used made the recordings far too fragile to even attempt to play. Technology opened a new door when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory successfully employed optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” to play the earliest recording of sound in the world, a recording so experimental that it couldn’t even be played when it was made. The sounds were recorded on paper with a phonoautograph device, like a sort of audio braille.

Beginning in 2011, the NMAH collaborated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to recover sound from the Bell experimental recordings. In 2013 they hit wonderful paydirt: the first known recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice. It was labeled as a test of the “reproduction of numbers” by A.G.B. and C.A.B., and those auspicious initials were confirmed in the voice of the man himself. The numbers test closed with a sign-off so explicit and clear that it was practically a gift to posterity. “This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell and in the presence of Dr. Chichester A. Bell on the 15th of April 1885 at the Volta Laboratory 1221 Connecticut Avenue, Washington D.C. In witness whereof, hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”

All told, the 2011, 2013 and 2019 investigations were able to recover 20 of the Volta recordings. There are hundreds more to go.

“Over the three-year duration of this remarkable project, ‘Hearing History: Recovering Sound from Alexander Graham Bell’s Experimental Records,’ we will preserve and make accessible for the first time about 300 recordings that have been in the museum’s collections for over a century, unheard by anyone.” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “We are grateful to this public-private partnership in funding this dynamic and innovative work.” […]

The grants will permit the museum to acquire and operate the specialized equipment needed for the upcoming work on the rest of the collection.

The sound recovery work uses a noninvasive optical technique that was first conceived by Berkeley Lab staff in 2002 and jointly developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress and other institutions over the past 15 years. The process creates a high-resolution digital map of a disc or cylinder. This map is then processed to remove evidence of wear or damage (e.g., scratches and skips). Finally, software calculates the motion of a virtual stylus moving through the virtual record’s grooves as represented by the map, reproduces the audio content and makes a standard digital sound file.

Look on my Face, ye Mighty, and despair!

The face of Pharaoh Ramesses II at the end of his life and at the height of his reign has been digitally reconstructed. Researchers created two realistic portraits of Ramesses II using a CT scan of his mummy as the departure point. The latest computed tomography data was used to create a 3D virtual model of Ramesses’ skull and forensic software used to reconstruct the pharaoh’s face as he looked when he died at age 90. Age regression techniques created a second portrait as he would have looked when he was around 45 years old.

Ramesses II was born around 1303 B.C. and was just 24 years old when his father Seti I died making him pharaoh. He reigned for 66 years, a warrior king who enlarged Egypt’s empire and built or expanded some of its most important monuments, including the Temple of Karnak. His mummy was discovered in 1881 and is now in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.

Cairo University radiology professor and mummy expert Sahar Saleem, who in 2019 used CT scans and digital imaging software to virtually unwrap the mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, worked with Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab, a multidisciplinary research group that uses forensic techniques to recreate the faces of historical figures as accurately as possible from skulls, death masks or portraits. Their subjects range from top-of-the-bill notables like King Richard III and Robert the Bruce to complete unknowns like the Goucher Mummy and a medieval Norwegian woman.

For the latest facial reconstruction, Saleem made a three-dimensional virtual model of the pharaoh’s head and skull from new CT scan data — effectively, thousands of X-rays assembled into a 3D image — which Wilkinson then used to reconstruct his face with computer software used in criminal investigations.

Next, Wilkinson used computer-generated imagery (CGI) techniques to add skin, eye and hair textures, based on what Saleem reported would have been common among Egyptians at the time — which showed what the pharaoh may have looked like when he died — and finally used the age regression software to show how he had likely appeared decades earlier. “The age regression was challenging, as this was in 3D,” she said.

Wilkinson explained that the field of estimating the face of someone from their skull is dominated by two approaches: “facial approximation,” which uses average data, templates and biological profiles to produce an “average” face, which might result from several different skulls; and “facial reconstruction,” a more detailed attempt to determine what a particular person looked like, based on anatomical standards, measurements and morphological analysis. A related term is “facial depiction,” which adds colors and textures, she said.

In this case, the team used the more detailed approach. “The face of Rameses II was produced using 3D facial reconstruction and then a 3D facial depiction process,” Wilkinson said.

(Credit and apologies for the title go to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was inspired by a fallen colossus of Ramesses II to write the verse I butchered in his poem Ozymandias.)

US National Archives’ Virtual Genealogy Fair

In September of 2013, the US National Archives hosted a two-day Virtual Genealogy Fair featuring lectures from genealogy researchers on how to use the records of the Federal government to investigate family history. There is an incredible wealth of information made available to the public in these archives, and the lecturers focus on different areas of particular interest to genealogists including military personnel records, pension files, immigration documents and much more.

The National Archives’ YouTube channel posted most of the sessions from the first day of the Fair five years ago. Now the second day has gone online, 10 years after the event. They’re all worth viewing for anyone who is interested in doing their own genealogical research (you never know where you’re going to find key information) using resources available online.

Day 1:

Introduction to Military Records at the National Archives by John Deeben (presentation slides (pdf))

Introduction to Genealogy: Civilian by Rebecca K. Sharp (slides)

Alien Files (A-Files) by Elizabeth Burnes (slides)

Native American Records by Michael Wright (slides)

National Archives Online Resources for Genealogy by Nancy Wing (slides)

Day 2:

Genealogy and the Freedman’s Bank: Records of the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Company by Damani Davis (slides)

Military and Civilian Personnel Records:  The National Archives at St. Louis by Ashley Mattingly & Theresa Fitzgerald (slides)

Union Civil War Pension Files by Claire Kluskens (slides)

Federal Penitentiary Records by Jake Ersland (slides)

Finding U.S. Colored Troops at the National Archives by Trevor Plante

Genealogy Through Navy Deck Logs by Mark Mollan (slides)

Oh, The Stories They Tell: Chinese Exclusion Acts Case Files at the National Archives & Records by Marisa Louie (slides)

Circus Maximus flyover and Rome post-sack

The Rome in 3D project, a virtual reconstruction of ancient Rome at its architectural maximum in the 4th century, has released two new engrossing videos: a flythrough of the Circus Maximus and of the center of the Eternal City after it was sacked by the Visigoths under Alaric in 410 A.D. Both of these videos are unusual among the Rome in 3D oeuvre.

The Circus Maximus has a voiceover narration (a transcript accompanies it in the YouTube description) describing what we know about the great arena and its use. It’s still a work in progress, so there are some areas and textures that aren’t quite finished. Even so, it’s a magnificent Ben-Hur-from-the-sky turn around the top sports arena in the ancient world. The main features — like the obelisks on the spina — are beautifully detailed.

The Rome in 410 video is the first Rome in 3D video to shows the enormous damage Rome suffered when things went wrong instead of showing the city at its brightest and shiniest. It is a slower walk through the Roman Forum that shows how selected sites looked before and after the Visigoths tore through them.

This video is the premiere episode of a larger planned series dedicated to the destruction of Rome in the end times of the Western Roman Empire. It will illustrate how the city’s public buildings crumbled and were rebuilt in new form, transitioning into the medieval city.

Rome in 3D is part of a wider History in 3D project that has been many years in the making. It is continually expanded and revised as the creative team keeps pace with technology. Their ultimate goal is to create the most detailed and accurate 3D reconstruction of Ancient Rome that can be used as an interactive application on your phone as you walk the streets of Rome today. An animated version will be transformed into a game engine.