Founded in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History isn’t merely one of the country’s oldest museums. With more than 33 million specimens, it’s also one of the biggest. Yet just 1% of those specimens are actually visible to the public in meatspace. So getting the 32 million other specimens out of the museum’s cavernous backrooms and in front of the public at large is an ongoing challenge for the museum–a challenge which the museum is increasingly turning to technology to solve.
The latest tech in the AMNH’s curatorial tool belt? VR video, courtesy of YouTube, Google Cardboard, and other VR systems. The museum has just released its first 360-degree video as part of its ongoing series dedicated to explaining the collection behind its collection, Shelf Life. It could very well be the best 360-degree video we’ve seen yet, showing how the medium can be used to literally transport people back in time as part of an educational tool.
The video focuses on the expeditions of legendary AMNH paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, the literal Indiana Jones (no really! He inspired the character!) of dinosaur hunters, from roughly 1922-1930 in the Gobi Dessert. While there, Andrews and his team discovered the famous Flaming Cliffs, a beautiful area of Mongolia’s Ömnögovi province that also just happens to be a major burial ground of dinosaur and early mammal fossils. In this area, Andrews discovered the first dinosaur eggs, along with at least a dozen other dinosaur fossils and heaps of early mammals.
These expeditions were incredibly important to paleontology as we know it today. As the sponsors of the exhibition, the AMNH is sitting upon treasure troves of material relating to Andrews’s finds in the Gobi Desert, with no real way of displaying them. But the Shelf Life video uses them well, pasting together hundreds of panoramic photographs, film clips, and archival photos to literallly stitch together an exciting moment in paleontological history, and transports viewers into it.
The Gobi video was produced by Erin Chapman, a longtime natural history nut with a film school degree who is part of the AMNH’s video team. Although 360-degree video was a new medium for both Chapman and the AMNH, she says that Andrews’s Gobi expeditions met the museum’s two criteria for what would make an excellent immersive video. “One, the museum has a critical mass of material to draw upon to build this virtual world,” she told me. “And two, it’s just a genuinely exciting story, making it a perfect subject for an immersive new medium.”
Even so, a 360-degree video provided new challenges for the AMNH’s video crew. For example, in a panoramic video, how do you guarantee that a viewer is looking where you want them to look? Chapman says that they wrestled with this issue at first, but ultimately realized that the trick was to make sure that a viewer could look anywhere without necessarily missing an important detail, with relevant details spaced around the entire field of view. Likewise, cutting between scenes needed to be handled in a more organic way than the simple cuts filmmakers favor. “360-degree video isn’t like straightforward video. You have to handle it more like a stage production,” she says, taking into account that a viewer can look anywhere at any time.
The final Gobi Dessert video is a fantastic look back in scientific time, recreating an on-the-ground perspective of one of the most important paleontological moments of the 20th century. But impressive as it is, it’s just the start. From here, Chapman says, the AMNH will keep exploring 360-degree video, with the ultimate goal of dipping the museum’s toe into virtual reality’s waters. “I honestly feel like there are endless stories from our collection we could tell this way,” she says. With 33 million objects, every specimen at the AMNH tells a story–and inside of it is a historical panorama, just waiting to be unlocked.