New app guides visitors through Beirut National Museum

The app is a relatively user-friendly tool that allows visitors to access detailed summaries of the history and original locations of pieces from part of the museum’s collection.

BEIRUT: A modern tool is giving lovers of ancient history a chance to blow the dust off the past with the touch of a button, or rather a screen. Visitors to Beirut’s National Museum can now digitally discover a room of the building’s trove of treasures thanks to a student project from the American University of Beirut that has documented in detail 22 artifacts, with the eventual goal of cataloguing more than 1,500 pieces – from prehistory to the Ottoman era – by early next year.

Aptly named El Mathaf (a combination of “electronic” in English and “museum” in Arabic), the app is a relatively user-friendly tool that allows visitors to access a detailed summary of the history and original location of any piece in the collection simply by taking a picture of it on their Android-platform mobile phone, all free of charge.

It all began two years ago when Mariette Awad, assistant professor of electrical engineering at AUB, was at Paris’ Louvre Museum on a self-guided tour using a headset. She thought it would have been better if she could use a mobile phone app that would allow her to enjoy the exhibits at her own pace, using her phone’s camera to identify the objects.

So why not do it in Beirut?

Upon returning home, she found that several of her students were eager to realize her vision of creating a state-of-the-art app to guide visitors through Beirut’s National Museum.

Once he had signed on for the project, 19-year-old AUB computer engineering student Giorgio Saad walked into the National Museum and told the curator he and some of his classmates wanted develop an application that enabled visitors to take a self-guided tour of the exhibition halls.

Museum curator Anne-Marie Afeiche was delighted at the prospect of Lebanon acquiring one of the region’s most-advanced tools for self-guided tours.

“From the beginning, I thought the project was fantastic,” Afeiche said. “It’s very futuristic. It’s the first time we have such technology in the Middle East [and] it’s important that it’s a student project.”

At first, the ambitious engineering students wanted to document the 71-year-old museum’s entire collection. Afeiche suggested that they start with one room.

As luck would have it, this past summer the museum inaugurated the Maurice Chehab Room. The exhibition hall honors one of the museum’s great heroes, the late antiquities director who is credited with saving hundreds of artifacts from damage, destruction and looting during Lebanon’s Civil War, famously encasing some larger exhibits in concrete.

The application was launched the same day that the Chehab room opened, although it still took the team of five several more weeks to work the kinks out of it.

At the museum, Yara Rizk, a doctoral candidate in engineering at AUB, demonstrates how she has taken five photos of various artefacts in the room from different positions. When the visitor snaps a picture of the object, regardless what angle, the mobile’s screen lights up with a detailed description of the piece in Arabic, French and English, including translations of ancient inscriptions.

Primarily from the Roman period, these pieces were discovered around a hundred years ago and pulled from the soil of Lebanon. The collection includes a 152 cm mosaic of the Good Shepherd, found in Jnah. Additionally, there is a mosaic of Jupiter’s amorous adventures, unearthed in Beirut; a limestone altar with an eagle and a Latin inscription commemorating Hochmea, the virgin of the god Hadaranes, also found in Beirut; and a mosaic of Bacchus and a satyr, uncovered in Byblos.

Afeiche is pleased with the new app. She said it was just a start, and the museum was planning to add its entire collection of more than 1,500 exhibited pieces – from a collection of some 100,000 artifacts, most of which are still in storage – to the app at the beginning of 2014.

This is not the first app to allow visitors self-guided tours of a museum. An app for the Paris Louvre offers descriptions of 100 pieces – including the priceless Mona Lisa – as well as a map of the building. At the British Museum, an app offers an audio tour – including a translation of the hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone and information on places to see in London. Another app provides thematic tours of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Awad is looking forward to developing the project further – not only from the tech side but also as a way to promote the museum, which she believes is a hidden treasure that people too often overlook in favor of other Beirut attractions.

“Mostly, I’m really excited about what this teaches,” Awad says. “It’s disappointing there aren’t more special [exhibitions] and activities to acknowledge its existence.”





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