rebecca's WIP

cabinets of wonder

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Today I met with Julia to go over advice for re-texturing some of my Hart Island models in preparation for building our Unity world. I’ve been getting great geometries in Photoscan, but when I view the models in Unity the textures look pixelated and fuzzy which is not what we want. I’m going to need to do some serious Photoshopping to get the level of detail I want in the coming days. One of Julia’s suggestions was to export the texture maps as PNG files rather than JPGs (since JPGs interpolate the spaces between textures and can make re-texturing more difficult). This afternoon I tried doing this for some of my models and got the following texture maps. This doesn’t have much to do with my project, but I think they’re really beautiful images that capture the unfolding of a space.

13_ferry_dock abandoned_bldg

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The concept for our final cabinet has come a long way in the past few weeks, and Nick and I have been able to articulate more clearly what we want to communicate through our museum. Our working project proposal is below.


Hart Island is a one mile landform off the east coast of the Bronx, directly adjacent to City Island.  Originally used as a Civil War training, POW, and then burial location, it was purchased by the City of New York in 1869 and its primary purpose became serving as the final resting place for the indigent and unclaimed dead of the city.  Now managed by the Department of Corrections, Hart Island still fulfills this role, with as many as 1,500 bodies being buried on the island every year by inmates from Riker’s Island.

Our museum takes into account the island’s present condition, which is to say, nearly inaccessible and hidden in plain sight; you can’t actually go to Hart Island unless you arrange it through the DOC, cameras are not allowed, and unless you are a relative, you can’t visit burial sites (active or inactive).

As a result we have chosen the format of a virtual reality museum & memorial both to what physically exists on Hart Island and to the barriers faced when trying to encounter what’s there, using a 3d reconstruction of the island from aerial maps to allow a user  to navigate multiple layers of consciously obscured content and media.

Components of our museum:

  • An explorable virtual space/environment
  • The experience starts at the gazebo area; in theory you could stand in the gazebo with a VR HMD and start exploring from your POV in the constructed version of what lies beyond the limits of that vantage point.
  • A series of speculative & abstract memorials (or reimagined markers) that surface physical realities of burial on the island.
  • Reconstructed buildings that you can walk into or not, that show what is or used to be on the island.  These may contain or display media like photos or documents.

Example interactions within our museum:

  • Approaching the site of AIDS burials on the island (which have no markers) surfaces a 3D rendering of a speculative memorial
  • Entering a building on the island reveals hidden media such as photographs and documents embedded on the walls of the 3D model
  • Stepping down into an active burial site triggers an animation that visualizes the number of inmates who have been involved in the interments.
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Some screen recordings of Apple Maps 3D flyovers that will hopefully be used with photogrammetry as the basis for our virtual museum. I wish there were a way to export an OBJ file or the depth information for a given place.

More info on Apple and Google’s large-scale photogrammetry mapping operations below

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How do you reconstruct a place you can’t actually visit? This is one of the central questions of my final Cabinet of Wonder, the Museum of Hart Island.

Hart Island is a cemetery owned by the city of New York where over 1 million people are buried, many of them unidentified. It is entirely closed to the public and operates with restricted access; family members of the deceased were not able to visit the graves of their loved ones until recently (following a class action lawsuit) and currently even authorized journalists cannot bring cameras onto the island.

Nick and I are building a virtual museum, and here are some initial attempts at reconstruction using aerial footage. More details on our final concept proposal to be posted shortly!

Experiment 1: Active burial site reconstructed from aerial footage

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Experiment 2: Abandoned buildings reconstructed from aerial footage

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Nick and I officially began work on our final Cabinets project, the Museum of Hart Island. Today we met for a few hours and dug deeper into our idea. We knew that we wanted to use VR for some portion of our project, so we spent a lot of time teasing out the affordances of an experience that it is virtual vs located in space and how we want to differentiate our experience from the other projects that have been created about this place. We ended the meeting with a better idea of what we actually want to make, which is great. While we draft our more official project description, below are some notes and key points from our brainstorm.

We decided on a preliminary mission / parameters for our museum, as follows:

To bring people to Hart Island
To foster grieving (collective and personal)
To generate dialogue about death and the dead
To house, promote, disseminate the work of Hart Island historians and journalists
To represent and physicalize the scale of this mass burial


Affordances of virtual experience versus one located in a physical site


Next steps / assignments for each of us


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I envision a museum that:

Cultivates empathy. A museum is a space of humanity. It is made by people, staffed by people. It feels human, not sterile. It helps us understand others. It is a place for kindness and connection in large ways and small. It is a space for starting important conversations.

Tells a story. Personal stories are important. Narratives can allow us to connect to things in a new way and invest in content more deeply.

Has a perspective. There is always a story, there are always choices being made. Those choices should make themselves apparent instead of try to hide.

Balances head and heart. A museum is a place for learning both about the world and yourself. It engages a combination of your intellect and your emotions.

Uses technology to make us present. Technology extends beyond interactive kiosks. Rather than distract us, it should us more fully present in the moment and in our surroundings.

Emphasizes context. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything has a history, a past life, a future life.

Provides just the right amount of information. Not too much, and not too little. Say just enough to paint a picture but omit enough for us to create meaning from what’s missing.

Limits reading. Reading a lot of text takes us out of the experience. A museum can use methods besides traditional textual captions, such as audio and visuals, to provide context and information to people.

Feels dynamic. Like everything in our world, it changes. You can visit more than once and discover something new each time. It feels connected to the outside world — to the surrounding community, to the current social / political / climate, to real life.

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It’s been a few weeks since all of my museum visits, so it was interesting to go back and peruse each of their websites. I took a look at the websites for: The Rubin Museum, Museum at Eldridge Street, AMNH, NYSCI as well as The Met and The Whitney (I didn’t visit those two for this class but I’ve been to both museums fairly recently).

Speaking only in terms of design, there’s a broad range of aesthetics, personality and usability among that group. The Whitney’s website, for example, is beautifully designed with large type and sophisticated, ’hip’ branding. It’s also very easy to navigate — there’s a large module at the bottom that clearly lists the hours and a gallery of daily events below it. The Rubin’s is also fairly easy to navigate — ie I can find the information I want easily in the side navigation — but it feels over-designed and has some parallax animations on the front page that feel like they’re trying a bit hard (and making me a little woozy). They also have some museum itineraries you can download which to me is a great idea but unfortunately it’s a bit buried in a couple levels of navigation. Then on the other side of the spectrum there’s the AMNH and Museum at Eldridge Street, with cluttered homepages, no real hierarchy and so many different calls to action that I don’t know where to look. Aesthetically, they feel a bit outdated and I don’t say much about the respective institutions.

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