With the touch of a fingertip, an ancient Greek vase painted with the face of a bull-headed Minotaur flashes upon a video screen. Another touch rotates the urn to reveal the Greek hero Theseus murdering the mythical creature. Antiquity, meet high tech.
The encounter occurred two weeks ago when the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu began an interactive videodisc program for its Greek vase collection. Now visitors can learn about the centuries-old artworks through state-of-the art technology.
The educational media tool emphasizes active viewer participation. Instead of passively reading exhibit labels or attending lectures or films, videodisc users can pick and choose what they'll learn about the painted clay vessels.
By simply touching one of two 13-inch video screens, museum visitors can find out about a chariot race depicted on a glossy black amphora or the way a shapely kylix wine cup was made. And though the entire videodisc program lasts about 2 1/2 hours, visitors may spend five minutes or as much time as they like exploring topics from form and function to artistic quality.
"Some people are intimidated by a room full of Greek vases covered with unfamiliar mythological iconography," said Marion True, Getty curator of antiquities who masterminded the project. "It breaks my heart, because people look in and say, 'Oh, there's nothing in here but dishes.' This was a pleasurable way to make sense of it all."
The videodisc also instructs how to distinguish an aesthetically worthy vase from an inferior one.
"The program takes you from being a passive perceiver to a discriminating participant, evaluating the works for yourself," said Bret Waller, Getty associate director for education and public affairs. "It keeps you involved."
Although museums around the country have similar interactive videodisc programs, Waller said the Getty's "is the most interactive, in any museum, anywhere."
One function of the program allows viewers to look at particular details of a vase up close--as if they were turning the vessel around by hand--by touching the video screen and thus freezing a rotating vase image.
True, who received a doctoral degree in classical art from Harvard, thought up the videodisc idea in June, 1984, when originally planning to produce the program about a large vase exhibit the Getty was to sponsor with the County Museum of Art.
"But I quickly realized the subject matter had a broader scope than a single show," True said.
The Getty has about 900 complete vases and thousands of vase fragments, all from about 600 B.C.-400 B.C. Experts agree that the collection is the third most important in the country. So with the help of Waller, Margaret Jacobson, Getty manager of special projects, other museum staff and the Interac media production company, True kept the focus on the Getty cache.
While the Getty crew provided most of the creative input, an Interac team led by Jan Sircus lent technical expertise.
Waller said the entire undertaking cost about $150,000.
Two dimly lit 5-by-5-foot cubicles at the museum house one computer-driven video monitor each. Both two-person viewing rooms are adjacent to a gallery with four of the museum's finest vases, the same four featured in the videodisc program. More than 100 other Getty vases also appear in the program, narrated by Getty director John Walsh.
While the project is only two weeks old, preliminary viewer reaction has been favorable, Getty staff agreed.
"If people come here expecting a razzle-dazzle electronic marvel, they'll be disappointed," Waller said. "We wanted this to be an educational adjunct, and make the vases our primary focus. Most visitors accept the videodiscs as being unintrusive and no more distracting than label reading." People usually spend about 15 minutes with the videos, he said.
Jacobson, who has helped conduct a two-week viewer evaluation yet to be scored, said the only real mark of success will come if visitors report they've learned something about the ancient objects.
"But," True said, "what we're ultimately hoping for is that by learning about the artworks, people will come to love Greek vases."