The Admonitions Scroll is a handscroll Chinese painting thought to be dating back to 5th-7th century AD and illustrates a political parody that was originally written by poet Zhang Hua. Due to the fragility of its condition, the scroll has to be stored in particular conditions that control humidity, temperature and light levels. To further ensure it is not damaged, the scroll is only publicly exhibited for eight weeks a year.
“The difficulty was that, if visitors and academics didn’t visit during these eight weeks, they simply couldn’t see it. Furthermore, the Museum needed a digital solution that was not merely a copy, but one that allowed users to interact fully with the scroll: its meaning, its provenance and its historical significance.“
Our team of creative technologists was tasked by The British Museum to solve this problem, creating an interactive digital gallery experience for visitors.
We took the brief apart, examining it from every angle. Above all else, the essential thought was to create a simple UX, whereby users forgot the digital platform to instead focus on the unique and beautiful qualities of the scroll. This, in turn, required a need for quality: when users zoomed in, they wouldn’t want the image to pixelate.
One concern – both of ours and the British Museum – was that users might regard the digitised version as a consolation prize to seeing the real thing. So we asked ourselves if we could add something to the experience of interacting with the scroll. We then discovered that the scroll was made up of 12 scenes of which the rest three were missing – however, we know what they looked like as they had been copied in a black-and-white 12th century painting. So the question was “Could we bring these images to life as part of this scroll”? They wouldn’t replace the missing images but, at the very least, they would give some idea as to the missing panels.
The final concern was how to fully annotate the scroll. Given the wealth of scholarship on the artwork, there seemed to be a vast amount of knowledge to draw on. We needed to give users insights into the scroll without bombarding them with information. Furthermore, we had to cater for both the layperson, casually browsing the British Museum’s site, and the more specialist academic.
Working together with the Google Cultural Institute who digitised the scroll we obtained high-definition images of the painting. This, in itself, presented a problem: the images soaked up vast amount of memory: the largest was an astounding 4GB. A file of that size simply can’t be added to a webpage.
The next step, then, was to cut up the images into a mosaic of smaller pieces. These were then “layered”, allowing users to focus in on immense detail, the closer they zoom. As there were so many layers, we pre-loaded and cached all of them, to improve performance.
We also explored the possibilities of touchscreen technology. Using kiosk Chrome mode, we developed a hyper-sensitive experience, one that allows the viewer to go from 1x focal length to 20x focal length. This is the equivalent from going from a long-shot overview of a court scene to a close up of one of the princess’s eyes.
The finished product is a fully interactive experience, available in both English and Chinese. Moreover, the product gives two options: if they want to find out more about the scroll, before exploring it, there is a Discover option. If, however, they just want to experience the beauty of it in more depth, they can click the Zoom option. This way, it caters to both target audiences of the British Museum: “the average visitor” and “the expert”.
“The Scroll was such a treasured relic that only very small audiences would ever have been given access to it – and that’s true now as well, but for a different reason: the silk that this is painted on suffers greatly if exposed to light, and it’s too delicate to be put on display except very rarely. But thanks to digital imagery everyone can now share this pleasure, which was once the preserve of the few” – said Neil MacGregor, broadcaster and Former Director of the British Museum.
Visit The British Museum today and find the digital experience in the China section on the ground floor.