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New 3D exhibit by U-M Museum of Natural History offers up-close encounters with prehistoric whales

By Sydney Hawkins

Scythian Media

ANN ARBOR—Since the beginning of the pandemic, staff at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History have been testing and developing innovative ways to engage patrons, educators and students from home. 

Though the community will have to wait a bit longer to safely visit in-person, a new online 3D experience launching this week will offer the next best thing.

Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea” is an immersive exploration into the unusual evolution and adaptation of whales, whose ancient ancestors walked on land. 

The exhibit, developed in partnership with Ann Arbor-based Saganworks, invites audiences to learn more about Maiacetus, Dorudon and Basilosaurus, three prehistoric whales whose skeletons are on view at the museum. 

“We’re proud of this presentation because it uniquely brings together information and images that are scattered around our physical museum as well as digital content that is not easily accessible,” said Amy Harris, director of the U-M Museum of Natural History. “For the first time, visitors will have an opportunity to have a close encounter with one of the prehistoric whale skeletons displayed far overhead in our entrance atrium.”

Though the virtual room looks like it could be an actual gallery in the museum, it is an entirely original layout and design. Viewers can enter and walk around using on-screen joysticks—an experience that those who play video games with open-world exploration will recognize. They will soon find that they are able to move in, around and through the three whale skeletons that serve as focal points in the center of the space. 

By hovering over and clicking on specimens and photos, viewers can read didactic materials and watch videos of U-M researchers discussing the material on view. There is a video that demonstrates how fossils are cast, and a bookshelf for homework and supplemental materials when the exhibit is used as part of a course curriculum.

“One thing that I felt very strongly about is that I did not want to re-create the in-person experience at the museum,” said Melissa Westlake, UMMNH assistant director for exhibits. “360-degree videos and virtual tours have become the norm over the past year, but I was invested in creating something new for our audiences that will outlive the pandemic and offer a great resource as an extension of our physical space, instead of a replication.”

The prehistoric whales that displayed above the iconic mastodon couple in the UMMNH’s five-story atrium are the subjects of a new 3D exhibition launching this week. Photo by Michelle Andonian.

In addition to preparing the materials and working with Saganworks to design the virtual space, Westlake and the UMMNH exhibits department collaborated with Museums Victoria in Australia to add a Pygmy Right Whale skeleton scan to the two 3D models that were provided by the U-M Museum of Paleontology’s Online Repository of Fossils.

“What is really neat about this exhibit is that it brings different resources together that would be nearly impossible to put together in an actual space,” Westlake said. 

The U-M Museum of Paleontology—one of the four museums that showcases its collections at the UMMNH—launched its online fossils repository in 2014, with the aim of providing access to detailed 2D and 3D scans of specimens from their collection to students and researchers around the world.

Adam Rountrey, a museum collection manager who developed the online repository’s interface, says that the 3D models used in the new exhibit are reduced-resolution versions of their more detailed models that were created with photogrammetry, a technique using hundreds of photos taken from many angles to generate a 3D model.

“We’re excited to have these models featured in the new exhibit,” he said. “Seeing versions of them in a virtual gallery setting surrounded by information about the history and biology of the whales provides a different experience from viewing them in isolation on our site, and we hope it is an engaging experience for a broad audience.”

“Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea” is available online 24/7 for exploration by the public and can also be used for teaching students of all ages. 

The Maiacetus skeleton, which is on view at UMMNH, represents the transition of land mammals back to the oceans and is featured in the new virtual exhibit. Photo courtesy Saganworks.

According to Westlake, the museum is already working with several U-M faculty members to integrate the exhibit into their curricula, as well as teachers at Ann Arbor Public Schools who will introduce it into the coursework of their 7th grade classes.

“The concept of Saganworks began after a visit to the British Museum. I thought to myself, ‘What if I could take these collections home with me?’ Four years later, I launched Saganworks,” said Don Hicks, U-M alumnus and CEO of Saganworks. “This exhibit and partnership with the U-M Museum of Natural History brings my vision for this application full circle by giving visitors the power to take home exclusive collections and breaking down barriers for curators such as time, location and the limitations of physical space.”

According to Harris, the UMMNH, which opened its new state-of-the-art facility in 2019, is currently preparing for visitors to return, but no official date has been set yet. 

“Over the last year, we’ve learned how to engage with our audiences in a deeper, more meaningful way, and not only do we hope to continue many of these new initiatives, I believe it will create a stronger connection when audiences return to our space in the near future,” she said.

Since March 2020, the UMMNH has developed several ways to experience the museum from home, including its Museum@Home web platform, Virtual Field Trips, Virtual Planetarium Shows and Virtual Camp.

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