Plaster ReCast, augmented reality app. Image courtesy of Josh Bard and Francesca Torello.

At the Carnegie Museum of Art, it’s serene in the Hall of Architecture as impressive plaster casts of giant, structural wonders loom all around. It’s easy to get lost in the 150 building facades, monuments and fragments from across the Western world. But admiring the details of a solitary column begs the question of how it looked as part of a bygone edifice.

With a Google Tango tablet in hand, Josh Bard, an assistant professor at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, points at the column and taps a button. On the screen, a 3D animation of the Tomb of Mausolus in Turkey, a historical site built circa 350 BC, takes shape. It’s surrounded by columns on all sides.

Question answered.

The tablet is outfitted with Plaster ReCast, a new augmented reality app soon to become available to the public for playtesting. Created by CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center under the supervision of Bard and fellow architecture professor Dr. Francesca Torello, the technology is designed to help visitors better engage with the CMOA’s plaster cast collection.

“Early on, Francesca and I had a sense that augmented reality was the best output because being in the Hall is so important and we didn’t want to take away from that,” says Bard. “We want to add information but still want you to interact with the physical cast.”

Torello says work on the app is informed by her own observation of other visitors, who “tend not to know what the plaster casts are, what their meaning is, and are confused to find ‘copies’ in the museum.”

Josh Bard (right) and Francesca Torello (left) use Plaster ReCast in the Hall of Architecture. Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Plaster ReCast serves as one of the projects featured as part of Copy + Paste: Hall of Architecture, an eight-month investigation bringing together curators, technologists, students, architects and artists to test new ways of presenting information about the space. The initiative will then gather visitor feedback meant to inform future efforts to make the Hall more exciting and accessible.

Established in 1907 by the museum’s founder, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the Hall houses the third largest architectural cast collection in the world, right behind those at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris. While the Hall and its collections are rich with history, including fantastic origin stories (one piece was part of a mysterious giant water clock that confounded experts for years), much of that gets lost in the museum’s efforts to retain its beauty.

“The museum’s interest is to set up a framework to provide a lot of information without adding a ton of new labels and physical signs that can really clutter a space,” says Alyssum Skjeie, program manager for the museum’s Heinz Architectural Center.

A 3D printer and mini-casts in the Heinz Architectural Center. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

The app allows guests to explore the Hall while learning about several select pieces. Three interaction modes allow you to more closely investigate 3D scans of the casts, pull up detailed models of the building to which it once belonged, and read about a cast’s history, complete with scans of old documents and images.

The app’s featured casts were chosen based on suggestions by Torello, an architecture historian at CMU who started bringing her students to the Hall a few years ago as part of a class on the rediscovery of classical antiquity in the 19th century. She later embarked on her own research on the history of the collection.

“I saw the understanding of my students grow after I shared with them the stories of those objects, so I figured that if we could find a way to make those same stories available to all visitors we could help the museum make these objects more legible and appreciated,” says Torello.

Besides the app, the museum will also host workshops in its Hall of Architecture Labs where students and visitors can view extensive archival materials, learn about architectural design, and make their own plaster architectural casts with one of three in-house 3D printers.

Skjeie sees Copy + Paste as helping them better understand how to deploy tools like apps in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, the museum experience.

“Museums, in general, are still grappling with how much technology to provide in galleries,” says Skjeie, pointing out that visitors are already distracted enough by their own smartphones. “We’re very curious to see how visitors react to it.”

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.