Time travel in augmented reality with this new app at Carnegie Museum of Art

Andrew Carnegie couldn’t have imagined this.

Bryan Conley / Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art
Rossilynne Culgan

You can now climb the steps of historic buildings, peek through their columns and even snap a picture of your adventure, all without leaving Pittsburgh (or this century) — in augmented reality, that is.

Here’s how to book your trip back in time, courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art’s new Copy + Paste: Hall of Architecture initiative.

  •  Head to Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture in Oakland after Nov. 1, when the augmented reality app Plaster Re-Cast launches. It’ll be on view through May.
  • Grab a tablet device in the gallery and follow its prompts to guide you to the three featured pieces.
    Plaster ReCast, augmented reality app, courtesy of Josh Bard and Francesca Torello

    Plaster ReCast, augmented reality app

    Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art
  •  Point the tablet at the piece (focusing on it as if you’re taking a photo), then follow the app’s prompts. Delve into the work’s history, tap the image to highlight key points of interest, then try the coolest part …
  • Navigate the tablet over an open space on the floor and watch as the app builds the entire structure in front of you, highlighting the fragment shown at the museum. Walk around the buildings, climb their stairs, touch their pillars and even snap a photo of the whole thing using augmented reality.

The turn-of-the-century Hall of Architecture houses 150 building facades, monuments and fragments from across the world — and they’re all plaster casts. Pittsburgh’s collection is the third largest architectural cast collection in the world. That means these pieces aren’t the real deal, but they were a big deal in Andrew Carnegie’s day.

“This is virtual reality of 1907,” museum spokesman Jonathan Gaugler said about the plaster casts.

Carnegie dreamed of bringing the world to Pittsburgh, through this encyclopedic collection of plaster casts, according to the museum. Per a plaque there, Carnegie said in the 1890s: “The Museum will thus be the means of bringing to the knowledge of the masses of the people who cannot travel many of the most interesting and instructive objects to be seen in the world; so that, while they pursue their tasks at home, they may yet enjoy some of the pleasures and benefits of travel abroad, we shall do our best to bring the rarest of those objects to them at home.”

Alyssum Skjeie talks about plaster casts.

Alyssum Skjeie talks about plaster casts.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

But then casts fell out of vogue as collectors began craving actual objects for their collections, rather than copies, said Alyssum Skjeie, program manager for the museum’s Heinz Architectural Center. As other museums banished their cast collections to storage, loaned them out to schools or dismantled them, Pittsburgh’s collection endured, as it does to this day.

And to this day, she said, the casts are still important. They’re now historic, there aren’t many left, and travel to these historic sites is still a challenge. Plus, she said, even if you traveled to every single site, you’d never have the opportunity to view the pieces side by side and make comparisons like you can at the museum.

“We know it’s an awe-inspiring space, but we know visitors want more information and need more information,” she said. “We always hear, ‘What does it actually look like?’”

The app, developed by Carnegie Mellon University in partnership with the museum, provides a deeper dive into this history than text on a label sign in the gallery, she said.

Currently, the app showcases a paver from Nineveh, a column from the Tomb of Mausolus, and a column capital from The Tower of the Winds in Athens. Plans are in the works to digitize three more pieces for the app, Gaugler said. Over the next six months, staff will experiment and evaluate visitors’ response to the experience.

Josh Bard and Francesca Torello, of Carnegie Mellon University, who researched the artwork and designed the app.

Josh Bard and Francesca Torello, of Carnegie Mellon University, who researched the artwork and designed the app.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Carnegie Mellon University architecture historian Francesca Torello researched the pieces and their meaning, exploring Carnegie’s rationale for the collection and also how early 20th century architects extracted pedagogical meaning from the pieces. She worked on the app with Josh Bard, of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, which offers a close-up look at the craftsmanship of each object’s real-life home.

“It uses the most recent advances in digital technology. You don’t have a rough model — you have a detailed scan,” Torello said.

In a Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Studio class, Bard will explore the material culture of architectural plaster, examine its importance and history and consider possible future robotic applications.

While you’re checking out the Copy + Paste exhibition, don’t miss:

  •  An archive room where you can read historic documents about the Hall of Architecture.
  • The CopyShop, a maker space with a 3D printing station, laser-cut puzzles, a plaster-making demo and other activities.
    Inside CopyShop.

    Inside CopyShop.

    Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

    Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
    Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

    Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline