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Touching the untouchable: increasing access to archaeological artefacts by virtual handling

Dr Linda Hurcombe and staff from other disciplines, departments and universities

Computer interfaces that provide information to the sense of touch offer exciting possibilities for interactive museum displays in which the visitor can handle virtual replicas of museum objects. Experiencing objects in this way provides an opportunity to participate in the sensory worlds of the past and offers new forms of accessibility for a wide range of museum visitors. The focus of the proposed research cluster is this virtual handling of museum objects, with archaeological textiles selected as a case study. New touch technologies offer the chance to handle virtual replicas of these rare and fragile objects. In addition, such a computer system is far more portable than a large collection of real objects and so offers significant outreach potential for public groups unable to visit the museum.

On seeing a textile it is natural to wish to handle it - the characteristic mechanical and surface properties of textiles are best understood by manipulation. Hence archaeological textiles are a particularly good choice of artefact for virtual handling. Conveniently, current interface technology is particularly suited to represent light, flexible objects such as textiles.

The overall aim of the cluster is to develop an improved understanding of the potential for virtual handling of archaeological textiles, leading to one or more major research proposals to develop and implement these techniques. The cluster is planned to involve 24 participants (plus new researchers and research students) from at least 12 institutions, including a 'core team' of six who are responsible for overall strategy. The cluster will bring together specialists in the areas of textile archaeology, museum display, computer interfaces, etc., to establish what is currently achievable, what is realistically achievable through future collaboration, and what technologies and techniques need further development.

This research project is a part of the College of Humanities Visual Culture initiative.