If you’ve already visited the Museum of Ontario Archaeology, chances are you walked through its Indigenous village reconstruction in northwest London. You’ve probably seen the reconstructed longhouse, too. But you haven’t seen it like this.
Visit the museum now and you’ll be able to experience the longhouse in virtual reality. You’ll be able to interact with the room, walk around the space and envision the depth and breadth of living space while watching smoke billow out of the roof.
This experience comes out of a partnership between the museum and Sustainable Archaeology at Western, a collaborative research initiative between Western and McMaster University, funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. It is a digital archaeological research facility and repository – located next door to the museum – making Ontario’s archaeological heritage accessible to all.
The virtual-reality longhouse is the result of a PhD project done under the supervision of Anthropology professor Neal Ferris, principal investigator at Sustainable Archaeology. The project was done through the initiative, but is going to be on display at the museum as just one example of how the two institutions can work together – and how the two will hopefully work together in the future, said Rhonda Bathurst, executive director of the museum.
Bathurst stepped into the role after spending seven years at Sustainable Archaeology, getting it off the ground. She hopes to see greater collaboration between the two institutions going forward.
Neal Ferris has a PhD student, Michael Carter, who is just finishing up his PhD. He’s a graphic designer who does digital imaging. He came back to do his PhD after having a career in movies, Bathurst said.
“It was his original love and he had been (at Western) in the 1980s and had looked for someone to do digital archology, and there was no one at the time. He went off, had his own digital-imaging career, built his own house where they did commercials and movies. He ended that and started a whole new career. He now works at Ryerson (University) as he’s finishing up his PhD in digital imaging in archaeology,” she said.
Thanks to the technology available at Sustainable Archaeology, Carter created a virtual-reality experience of a longhouse based on the Museum of Ontario Archaeology village longhouse. While a traditional archeological excavation of a longhouse would have provided archaeologists with enough information – width, depth, etc. – to determine the size and height of a dwelling, the virtual-reality experience allows you to see the space in real life and make more accurate assumptions about living conditions centuries ago, Bathurst explained. Researchers have walked through Carter’s virtual longhouse, noting they didn’t expect the roof to be as high, she added.
“What that ended up being was not just a digital walkthrough, but something you can engage in. They put in a gaming engine so you can walk through it; the HTC Vive has two sensors set up that allow you to move within the space. (The virtual longhouse) is in a gallery in the museum, and will show Mike’s research,” Bathurst said.
“It’s a great opportunity. It’s still this side (Sustainable Archaeology) stuff and Neal is gracious to let us showcase it. But my hope is from that, we will garner a lot more interest on campus, and different facilities around town, and around all of Ontario. I’ll throw my net wide and what I’m hoping is, what we generate there, will help (the museum) get its own stuff.”
There’s a transition that will happen here over the next two years, said Bathurst, who did her MA in Anthropology at Western under the supervision of Andrew Nelson. Sustainable Archaeology will move over to the museum; it will be within the museum’s custodianship and her new role will look to facilitate this transition.
“The idea (at Sustainable Archaeology) is to provide a home for Ontario archaeological heritage from all across the province. It was built for storage and to facilitate research,” she said, noting the research has been largely digital and uses high-tech, including 3D printers and scanners, virtual-reality technology, a micro-CT scanner, among other gadgets.
“The museum now has the opportunity to be a testing ground for a lot of stuff that happens at Sustainable Archaeology – which is why I’m particularly excited about facilitating this. After operating funds are wrapped up on the Sustainable Archaeology side, the museum will take over,” Bathurst added.
Sustainable Archaeology charges for storing artefacts and for use of its technology, she explained. The hope is to eventually make the facility self-sustainable so its partnership with the museum can continue.
“There’s a lot of development being done in the province, and whenever there’s development, a licenced archeologist has to come in and make sure there’s no cultural heritage that’s being destroyed. A lot of companies popped up since the 80s, so we now have a lot of collections across Ontario – Sustainable Archaeology provides a stable environment for those collections. They’re looked after for the long term, for a one-time fee.”