At a touch, Cone apartments are virtually restored to life

BMA cybertour shows off collector sisters' residence

December 01, 2002|By Jennifer M. Sims | Jennifer M. Sims,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Brinton Jaecks strolls through the apartments of Etta and Claribel Cone - the famed art collectors and members of the Baltimore elite in the early 20th century.

He passes Henri Matisse's famous Blue Nude hanging on the wall and picks up one of the sisters' personal journals and flips through it.

Jaecks, a technical specialist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Imaging Research Center, hasn't been transported through time.

He's using an interactive virtual tour created by the UMBC center to supplement the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection.

A touch-screen monitor in the museum transports visitors to a virtual 3-D re-creation of the Cone sisters' apartments, allowing museum patrons to experience the collection as the sisters and their guests did.

"It's a Baltimore piece," Jaecks said of the virtual tour.

Etta and Claribel Cone spent their lives in Baltimore, collecting pretty much everything from art to postcards to lace collars and jewelry boxes.

The collection - which Etta Cone left to the museum in 1950 - is especially known for the more than 500 works by the French artist Matisse.

The lives of the two sisters, who traveled the world, threw festive parties and kept company with influential people, including Matisse and Gertrude Stein, are as much a part of the exhibit at the BMA as the art itself.

According to Anne Mannix of the BMA, many people knew the Cones and had even been in their apartments when the exhibit first opened in 1957.

But when the museum revamped the exhibit in April last year, many of the people who came to see it were much younger.

"Now there's a whole generation who don't know the Cone sisters, don't know their story," she said.

The virtual tour helps visitors get a better glimpse of how the two lived. Visitors using the virtual tour can read letters from Matisse to Etta Cone, look through photo albums, lift ornate pieces of lace from a wooden chest in one of the bedrooms and sift through the drawers of a bureau that hold sketches by Pablo Picasso that are not always on display in the museum.

The interactive exhibit uses technology similar to those of video games. The IRC staff spent much of its time making digital 3-D replicas of real-life objects, which then were programmed using software used by video-game companies to test a new game before it is mass-produced.

"Museums aren't used to this technology. They're not video game gurus," Jaecks said, explaining that many people at the museum don't fully understand the time and technology that went into the project.

On a recent day, Mel Sherman, a Los Angeles resident in Baltimore to visit family, was impressed by the exhibit, even if he didn't fully understand its origins. He tapped the screen at the BMA and the interior walls of the sisters' apartments floated past, creating for Sherman the illusion that he was walking through the rooms of their apartments.

When he touched the detailed digital reproductions of the paintings and sculptures, a placard with basic information about the piece and the artist popped onto the screen.

"This is a wonder. If you want to know about a painting, you just push it. ... There's nothing like this in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art," he said.

Sherman, 74, grew up in Baltimore and remembers delivering newspapers as a boy to the apartment building on Eutaw Place that's now immortalized in the BMA's digital exhibit.

The exhibit was produced by the staff of the IRC and 17 interns who worked with the museum to make sure the virtual tour closely resembled the original apartments.

They used as their source 37 photographs of the Cone apartment and blueprints of the building that one of the interns found in order to determine where furniture was placed, where paintings were hung and to determine the mood of the apartments.

From the paintings to the doorknobs, more than 1,000 objects were re-created in the digital environment and incorporated into the tour.

UMBC senior Dan Marsh spent most of a semester-long internship modeling pieces of lace on computer for a second version of the program, which was launched in April. "It's like stitching it yourself, because lace has such intricate details," he said.

Jaecks, who worked as an intern on the project before he graduated in December 2000, and Christina Hung also remembered long nights and stressful times dedicated to the project. But it wasn't all work and no play.

Jaecks and Hung recall Alan Price, director of the IRC, playing pranks on the staff. Once, Price drew potatoes on a couch that Jaecks was creating digitally for the project while Jaecks was on break.

Even with the pranks, the IRC, founded in 1987 as a part of UMBC's Visual Arts Department, pumps out high-quality projects each year that are seen and used around the world. Interns and professional staff team up on projects such as the one at the BMA, computer animation and other digitally based projects.

The IRC developed the animated Ravens mascot that dances across the video screens at the football stadium during games and created KinderCat, the co-star of a weekly kids' show on WMAR-TV.

Now the IRC is at full throttle again, this time on a project about the French post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The crew is pulling long hours and sleepless nights to put the project out on deadline. And so far, the procedure has been prank-free.

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