A More Personal Viewing Experience

Exhibit Marries Ancient Objects and Technology

Posted December 12, 2007 at 4:33pm

The books and artifacts that preceded America’s birth can now be seen in a completely different way: up close and personal.

A new exhibit at the Library of Congress allows visitors to virtually explore the minute details of a 16th century Mayan vase or flip through the first book of North American wildlife on a computer screen. It’s the first piece of the “New Visitors Experience,” a yearlong undertaking aimed at meshing cutting-edge technology with ancient maps, books and objects.

It’s a “new kind of educational experience,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said Wednesday — one that will marry the old with the new and open doors of learning. For the past year, the Library has been busy renovating the century-old Jefferson Building to include the wires and technology needed for the new experience. Other exhibits will open in April.

“We’re really embarking on a new endeavor to bring knowledge into life,” Billington said.

The exhibit, “Exploring the Early Americas,” features dozens of paintings, maps, books, letters and artifacts. Large screens welcome visitors into the Northwestern Gallery, while individual display cases tell the story of America’s past. Many of the objects come from Jay I. Kislak, a mortgage banker who has been building a collection for 50 years. He donated much of his collection to the Library — it simply didn’t all fit in his living room, he said.

“It was a selfish thing,” he said. “It was a way to put these things in a place where they belong.”

But the crowning achievement of the exhibit is Martin Waldseemuller’s 1507 world map — the first document to ever use the word “America.” Lost for centuries, the map resurfaced in 1901, only to be set aside in a portfolio for preservation.

The Library has taken large pains to display it, building a six-foot-tall pressurized case that matches those made for documents like the Declaration of Independence. Another display case will house Waldseemuller’s 1516 navigator’s map of the world, allowing visitors to freely compare the two. An accompanying interactive station helps out, zooming in on the maps’ details and offering a feature that highlights the differences between the two.

But overall, the exhibit looks like any other at first glance: books and artifacts centuries old sit behind thick glass with plaques that detail their stories and importance. The difference is in the unobtrusive kiosks, which let visitors look at those same objects much more closely. Detailed, three-dimensional images will move and rotate with the swipe of a finger, while sound bites give a brief history. Visitors can also zoom in on the pages of a book or the pictures on a vase, catching many details that otherwise might go unnoticed.

It’s all in an attempt to encourage more visitors to take interest in the Library’s collection, both in person and online. When the center officially opens in April, visitors will get individual passports when they enter. With a swipe, those passports will save the link of any of the computers’ interactive features to a personalized Web site. Later, the visitors can access it through their e-mail accounts.

It’s only the beginning: To create the New Visitors Experience, consultants and Library employees met with officials from museums and agencies that used similar technology. Recently, officials partnered with Microsoft to provide the technological backbone for the exhibits.

Officials also hope the new Capitol Visitor Center will bring in more people. When it opens in November 2008, the CVC will connect to the New Visitors Experience through a tunnel — an aspect that Library officials say could help triple the more than a million visitors who come to the Library each year.