MTI Virtual Reality Exhibition # 1

This Spring, as the Innovator-In-Residence for Media & Technology Innovation (MTI), I curated our first virtual reality (VR) exhibition in the ENGAGE VR application. In pursuit of our goal of promoting the use of immersive digital storytelling technologies, NUIT and Media & Technology Innovation will be developing rotating virtual exhibitions to engage Northwestern University students, faculty and staff. We will be collaborating with members of the NU community to digitize some of their favorite objects and curate them within dynamic and interactive VR environments. To accomplish this, the project made use of digitization techniques including 3d photogrammetry and modeling, videography and digital curation to produce the inaugural MTI virtual exhibition in the ENGAGE VR metaverse.

Three members of the Northwestern University community, Dr. Amal Hassan Fadlalla, Zoran Ilić and Dr. Mary Weismantel, graciously lended their objects for digitization. Dr. Fadlalla, a University of Michigan Professor, contributed a Hadendowa Knife which she collected in Sudan during the late 1990’s. Fadlalla received her PhD in Anthropology at Northwestern University and donated the knife to the former Chair of the department, Tim Earle. I first encountered the object during an exploration of the Chair’s Office in 1810 Hinman. In addition to its stunning craftsmanship, the knife also encompassed a beautiful narrative of gratitude and exchange. The Anthropology Department stored the knife with a letter penned by Fadlalla in March 1999, which tells the story of the knife’s creation as a gift for Tim Earle and his assistance in helping Fadlalla obtain residency status to pursue graduate studies in the United States. The digital nature of the exhibition allows for audience members to approach the letter, read Fadlalla’s words and intimately experience the materiality of the 3d model.

The exhibition also includes a model of a 1952 edition Croatian Pinocchio Book. This object was donated by Zoran Ilić, Senior Academic Systems Engineer for NUIT and a vital contributor to the production of the exhibition. Ilić and myself conducted photogrammetry on each object in the Emerging Technologies Lab which allowed for the creation of 3d models that can be interacted with in VR. Ilić brought the Pinocchio book to the US from Croatia in the early 2000’s and I was able to interview him on the importance of the object within his family’s cultural heritage. He also took the time to explain the uniqueness of his collection and some of the ways in which the Croatian version of the classic story differs from the popularized Disney-fied edition.

The third object of the exhibition is a Peruvian ceramic Trujillo beer bottle collected by Dr. Mary Weismantel, professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. This beautifully rich object was contextualized in a short interview with Weismantel, where she explains the symbolism, politics and anti-racism embedded within bottle’s creation. Weismantel is a preeminent scholar of the Andes – learn more about her work and the cultural context of the ceramic bottle in her book Cholas and Pishtacos: stories of race and sex in the Andes.

This project was a pleasure to create. As our first attempt, we were both inspired by the potential of these technologies and also frustrated by some of the difficulties that digitization and photogrammetry present. In the future MTI hopes to improve our processes of data capture and the resolution of our models, through the use of light diffusers, polarizers and tweaks within our studio lab setup. We are also looking forward to hosting the owners of lended objects within the VR application (from wherever they may be in the world) so that they themselves can share their stories and memories with a live VR audience.

I am extremely grateful for the time and patience of the object lenders, and the labor of NUIT staff such as Stephen Poon, Nate Bartlett and Zoran Ilić who assisted with the production of the exhibition. If you are a student, staff or faculty member at Northwestern University and would like to see your one of your favorite objects in a Virtual Reality exhibition, feel free to send an email to