University of Montana virtual tours move the Wild West into the digital space | State and Region

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ROB CHANEY

To get the most up-to-date tour of the University of Montana Museum of Arts and Culture, first make sure no one is there.

Adapting to the COVID pandemic has made this easy. A 3D virtual tour system can now provide exclusive viewing time for visitors, complete with speaker notes and background source material. On Friday, the new Goodbar Collection of Western Art will bring the Wild West into the digital arena.

Live concurrently with the actual debut of the paintings and sculptures in UM’s Meloy Gallery, “Imagining the West: Selections from the Stan and Donna Goodbar Collection of Western Art” allows those who want or need a social distance to still have a thorough exploration of the works.

When the reception doors open in the UM PAR/TV building at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, the digital exhibition also opens. Visitors don’t need any special app to take a virtual tour. A single click on any exhibit listed in the MMAC exhibits webpage that offers a “virtual docent tour” will take the viewer inside the gallery. The Goodbar Tour is set to go live on Friday.

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“You can browse the pieces in the software just fine,” said MMAC curator Anna Strankman. “They are quite interactive.”

The Goodbars’ personal collection of paintings, illustrations and related works that defined the myths of the Old West are on display: Indians, cowboys, houses on the beach and many of the pulp-fiction magazines that carried those myths to a wider American audience.

The virtual tours use a 360 degree camera to capture the Meloy Gallery space from many different locations on the floor. From any location chosen, the visitor will be close to an artwork and across the room to other rooms, and can turn around to look from any direction. A mouse click zooms closer to a chosen artwork, whether it’s right next to it or on an opposite wall.

Each artwork also has labels listing basic catalog information of artist, date, and medium, as well as interpretive notes about its meaning. Some have “points to ponder” for younger visitors that can start conversations about the artwork.

Photographer and videographer Eileen Rafferty has built two previous tours for MMAC. It takes him about 45 minutes to place his special camera, leave the room, trigger it by remote control, then reposition himself for the next point of view in order to create the raw material for the visit.

Then the images are sent to software company Matterport for rendering and transformation into the final presentation. The resulting spectacle leaves a ghost visitor through the empty gallery, able to drift along the walls and spin like a player in a live video game.

MMAC director Raphael Chacón adapted the tour setting from a system used at the Radius Art Gallery in downtown Missoula. The hosting company, Matterport.com, specializes in property tours, but its capabilities also work well for museums.

“It’s a new way to educate, but I think it’s a viable way,” Chacón said. “More and more people are comfortable with the online experience. When the pandemic hit, it quickly became apparent that virtual tours would be very appealing, with everyone cooped up at home.

Before the pandemic, the Meloy gallery received three or four guided tours a week. When much of the campus has been closed for the past two years, virtual tours have averaged 30 to 40 visits per week, Chacón said.

Chacón added that another of the few valuable results of the COVID pandemic was the consideration of the digital reach of the UM art program. The Montana Museum of Art and Culture now has a virtual catalog of virtual tours, including the “Movement: Graphics and the Olympic Games, and Richard Buswell: Fifty Years of Photography.”

“We realized we had a minimal online presence when it came to education,” Chacón said. “All the documents in our gallery were printed. We had no way of archiving the exhibits. Now the shows may be gone physically, but the virtual tour exists forever as long as there is cyberspace.

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