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Museum gives you feel for items you can’t touch

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Museum staff in Manchester have devised a computer console which allows visitors to ‘handle’ ancient artefacts.

The technology at Manchester Museum – the first of its kind in the UK – allows the public to virtually touch delicate objects which would normally be kept behind glass.

It means that visitors will be able to feel the texture and shape of 6,000-year-old pots, jewellery, and tools from the museum’s Egyptology collection.

The pioneering ‘haptic’ technology features a sensitive robotic control which provides varying degrees of resistance when the operator ‘touches’ an object on the screen, tricking the user into sensing shape and texture.

Using a pioneering 3D laser scanner, museum curators were able to scan their most valuable relics and put the ‘solid’ scans on to the console device.

The device was designed with the help of Henshaws Charity for the Blind, where blind and visually impaired people gave their feedback on the machine.

But Sam Sportun, the museum’s collections manager, said it would give all visitors the chance to handle rare relics.

She said: “This haptic technology has been around for 10 years. It has been used in the nuclear industry, where people have been operating robotic arms. But we are the first in the country to use it this way.

“As a conservation expert, I’ve spent half my life protecting these objects. But I’m realistic about the fact that people want to touch the artifacts and they can learn a great deal from doing so.”

Museum staff have so far scanned three items from the museum’s Egyptology collection – including a 4,000BC bowl and an Egyptian model, known as a Shabti – but hope to scan many more objects from the archive, including a full-scale mummy.

Former teaching assistant Barbara Whitehead, 68, from Levenshulme, whose eyesight has deteriorated dramatically over recent years, said it was a remarkable experience.

She said: “I was a bit sceptical at first but, once you get used to it, it is incredibly tactile and you really get a sense of what these objects are like.”

Curators also have a portable model of the device, which they plan to take into schools and elderly care homes.

Staff at the museum collaborated with innovator Chris Dean, a former sculptor turned electronic pioneer, to create the 3D technology box.

 

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