Bringing Archeology Closer to the Public

Professor Downum creates online museum for Southwestern artifacts

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In a virtual museum it is possible to walk around and look into display cases.

Northern Arizona University Professor of Anthropology Dr. Chris Downum is bringing the artifacts of the Southwest into the homes of people everywhere. Not the actual pieces, of course, but stunning, close-up images on an interactive website called the American Southwest Virtual Museum.

“With the virtual museum, we want to enrich the way people experience the cultural resources in U.S. national parks,” says Downum.  “This is the heritage of this country, and really the heritage of all peoples.”

Downum developed the website with Duane Hubbard, Cultural Resources Program Manager at Tonto National Monument (a monument area that lies on the northeast edge of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona), and the creative team of NAU’s IDEA Lab, which supports research efforts at the university. His hope is that the virtual museum will bring archeology closer to the public. It will open doors to museum collections and park resources, making ancient treasures and information resources accessible to a wide range of individuals, including history lovers, teachers, students,  researchers, artists, and people who can’t travel to view them. It will also enhance people’s appreciation and understanding of what they see when they visit the national parks of the Southwest.

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Clovis point: The oldest human-made object in Arizona.

In the crowded and sometimes time-constrained environment of an exhibit area, it’s easy to overlook what’s on display. “Sometimes I see people walk right past an artifact like a Clovis point (a fluted projectile point associated with the ancient Clovis culture), and I want to grab them and say, ‘Wait. This is the oldest undisputed human-made object you can find in the entire state of Arizona. It’s 13,000 years old, and people used it during the last Ice Age to hunt mammoths…,” he says. “To me, walking past a Clovis point, or just glancing at it in the exhibits case, is like walking past a moon rock. Seeing these types of artifacts should be magical.”

Downum believes the virtual museum can help awaken that type of wonder: “People can go back again and again to the artifacts, learning more than they could during a one-time visit.”

Many layers of exploration

When a person enters a virtual museum, in one way it’s no different than stepping into a bricks-and-mortar structure. It’s possible to walk around a site, look into display cases, read informational panels, and even enjoy the beauty of the surrounding landscape. This on-the-scene feeling is a result of original NAU IDEA Lab photographs that have been stitched together and animated. However, the interactive experience doesn’t stop there.

The virtual museum adds a hands-on component that’s not possible on location because artifacts are fragile and irreplaceable. An on-line visitor can zero in on an object and “touch” and manipulate it to see its distinctive characteristics. For example, a marble-sized copper bell can be expanded to the size of a softball, revealing its design, texture, and condition; and a one-inch projectile point can be expanded to a foot in size or larger, while preserving its intricate details. Some objects can even be rotated 360 degrees and observed from many different angles.

 In addition, the virtual museum has special features, such as links to museum catalog cards, archival photographs, and video interviews with Native American tribal members. Visitors can learn where an artifact came from, how it was found, and the archeological/cultural interpretations. “I like to think that the online museum offers lots of layers of exploration,” says Downum.

"The virtual museum adds a hands-on component that’s not possible on location because artifacts are fragile and irreplaceable."

Not just for amateurs

Professional archeologists can also benefit from the site. Downum and his team have created artifact identification guides to present information that professional archeologists might like to know.  A person can visit the American Southwest Virtual Museum and learn important details about the ancient pottery of the Southwest, like the characteristics of various styles, how old they are, where they are found, and what kinds of colors and designs they have. “This will be by far the most detailed pottery identification guide available anywhere about southwestern pottery,” says Downum. “It should also be useful for artists and anyone else who appreciates the aesthetic qualities of pottery, because the images are gorgeous.”

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In the virtual museum, a visitor can learn about the ancient pottery of the Southwest.

In addition to the thousands of high-resolution photographs taken by NAU’s IDEA Lab, the staff also created the website and logo, and animated certain images for 360-degree viewing. “For the first time (in my 35-year career as an archeologist) I feel that I’ve found a group of people who have the artistic talents and technical skills to help me bring my vision of the past to life," he says.

A model for other parks 

The virtual museum was launched with the Arizona collections of Wupatki National Monument and the Navajo National Monument, but  the goal is to eventually include every museum and visitor center in the greater Southwest—some 40 sites across six states, including the Grand Canyon. Downum and Hubbard would like the Southwest Virtual Museum to become a model for other parks and monuments.

The U.S. National Park Service provided financial support for the virtual museum project through its sponsorship of the Learning Center of the American Southwest website, and through grants to the Museum of Northern Arizona, which houses artifacts from many of the individual parks.

--Sylvia Somerville