Interface unveils the secrets beneath the Met's paintings

Interface unveils the secrets beneath the Met's paintings

Developed in the MediaLab, 'Paintings Uncovered' reveals the hidden layers beneath the top surface of a painting using an infrared flashlight and a hacked PS3 camera.

The MediaLab at the Met is a place where art meets technology to find new ways to interact with the museum. Over the course of a semester, graduate students from New York City's design, technology, museum, and media studies programs have close encounters with the Met's collection as well as the Museum staff on a regular basis to develop their ideas into functional demonstrations that helps them think about ways that new technology can impact visitors' experience of the Museum.

The interactive interface 'Paintings Uncovered' was developed by Betty Quinn, a former MediaLab Intern. The idea was inspired by her childhood dream of becoming an archaeologist; by using a flashlight, users can "role-play" as archaeologists or researchers.

Betty wanted to experiment with sharing the story of the paintings in an interactive way, so she created an interface that reacted to infrared light to reveal the original painting that lies underneath.

You may wonder why are paintings hiding stories beneath the surface, the answer isn't about any conspiracy theory. Painters frequently paint over paintings for various reasons, one may be that the original painting didn't sell, so the artist reused the canvas to create an entirely new painting, or maybe the artist changed his mind about the final result. Examining the underlying surfaces of paintings can reveal the artist's process of creating the artwork. 

Pablo Picasso is known to have often painted over his paintings. Here, one can see Woman Ironing (1904) (left) and the portrait of a man found underneath (right).

The technology behind 'Paintings Uncovered'

Reflectography is an infrared technique to detect layers beneath the top surface of a painting. This method was used to reveal the three versions of Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Lady with an Ermine' - one without the ermine and two different versions of the short-tailed weasel :)

"We've discovered that Leonardo is always changing his mind. This is someone who hesitates - he erases things, he adds things, he changes his mind again and again." - Pascal Cotte, pioneer of a new technique called Layer Amplification Method (LAM). BBC News.

With 'Paintings Uncovered', users are able to point an infrared flashlight at a digital version of the painting (either a projection or pulled up on a computer screen), and an infrared camera tracks the position of the light to create a circular mask on the painting that "burns through" the top layer. Moving the flashlight onto certain areas then triggers specific questions about the work.

Betty created the interface by using openFrameworks (a C++ toolkit aimed at designers) and the PS3 Eye, a small, portable camera for the PlayStation 3. She modified the PS3 Eye by removing the infrared filter and installing a visible light filter instead (view the Instructable). Then she took apart a cheap flashlight and switched its LED with an infrared LED.

One of the Met's artwork stories revealed by 'Paintings Uncovered' is the John Singer Sargent's portrait of Madame X. This portrait was a subject of controversy when it was unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1884. In the original painting, the strap on Gautreau's right shoulder seductively rested off her shoulder. People were shocked and made a scandal, so Sargent painted over the strap in order that it was secured on her shoulder, and, in 1916, sold the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

'Paintings Uncovered' engages viewers with a question before allowing them to view the revealed layer. Betty Quinn intended to create an inquiry-based experience that encourages viewers to examine the painting more closely and think about the art before jumping into an immediate lecture. This technology is an inspiration source for an evolution in the traditional labels of the museum's artworks that would turn tours into interactive guide-free experiences for a memorable museum storytelling.

Published on: March 2016
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