Crafting Interactive Encounters at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Boston, MA

In an interactive exhibit built for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), Ideum integrated digital versions of seven Buddhist sculptures into an interactive facsimile of a Japanese Buddhist Temple Room. This user-led exhibit, a 3D-media-viewer label, is installed at the threshold before visitors access the “Japanese Temple Room" deep inside the Museum’s “Arts of Japan” galleries.

In 2023, the MFA enlisted Ideum as their software design and development partner. On May 11, 2024, as part of the unveiling of the newly renovated "Arts of Japan" galleries, visitors engaged with digital representations of the centuries-old, hand-carved, and painted sculptures captured with a method of 3D scanning known as photogrammetry. 

Inside the digital replica, visitors can tap on hotspots to learn more about the unique artistry, construction, and iconography of each sculpture. Here, visitors can freely explore the sculptures, ensuring that the serene and atmospheric “Japanese Buddhist Temple Room” remains free from the clutter of interpretative labels and harsh lighting. The gallery, designed in 1909, was adapted from plans for an 8th-century monastic complex. Now, and for the last hundred years, these sculptures have sanctified their display space within the museum, resonating in their second life. 

Notably, three sculptures in the interactive software share conservation stories, enriched with multimedia content from a scientific perspective. The digital scans of these objects, captured by the museum’s Conservation department in partnership with MIT students, and then refined by partners at the creative firm, Black Math, serve as an exciting digital record of the seven artworks. The interactive experience is now part of the history and legacy of these objects for generations to come. 

Ideum sought to strike a balance between a more hands-on approach to exploring the sculptures and an appropriate level of reverence for the sacred works of art. In the real-world gallery, the artwork presentation is both static and stoic. The sculptures are elevated within a hushed atmosphere. The digital kiosk, however, enables visitors to touch, turn, and zoom in on the 3D objects to activate hot spots and to learn more. It became clear during prototyping that certain interactions should be constrained so as to avoid disrespectful engagement with these virtual depictions of the Buddha.

The result is a smooth, reverent experience, with the freedom to look very closely and touch the objects, but always with respect. These innovative visualization techniques support an active exploration of art objects that would otherwise remain exclusive to the conservation lab.

Ideum also assisted in crafting a flythrough animation of a traditional temple exterior. This space was designed to provide greater context for the “Japanese Buddhist Temple Room.” Ideum created several iterations using the temples at Nara and Miidera for reference.

The construction containing the abstracted viewing space started out as a bright and detailed temple setting, then evolved into a dramatic night scene, then to something that could have been integrated into an anime production, we called one a “temple of the mind”, before we finally settled on a more subtle experience. Dr. Anne Nishimura Morse, William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art at the MFA, worked patiently with our team. Her successful editing presence underscored the importance of expertise guiding our hand in our digital interpretation of these sacred objects. 

The "Japanese Buddhist Temple Room" evokes the ambiance of an Image Hall in a Buddhist monastery, where statues are enshrined for worshipers to behold from afar. Ideum’s digital facsimile of the temple room invites visitors to respectfully explore MFA Boston’s Buddhist sculptures and examine them in up-close detail, along with descriptive videos and other forms of visual storytelling. The interactive kiosk not only fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation for the art behind these religious objects but also provides a digital space blessed by the presence of these sacred sculptures.

The Japanese Buddhist Temple Room evokes an Image Hall in a Buddhist monastery. Statues are enshrined there, but worshipers see them from afar. This application invites visitors to learn about the Buddhist sculptures and view them in close detail.
The Japanese Buddhist Temple Room evokes an Image Hall in a Buddhist monastery. Statues are enshrined there, but worshipers see them from afar. This application invites visitors to learn about the Buddhist sculptures and view them in close detail.
By exploring the Dainichi, Buddha of Infinite Illumination sculpture in the Application, visitors learn that the neck marked by three lines is a common distinguishing iconographic feature of Buddha images.
Nikolaos Vlavianos lights and scans Diainichi, Buddha of Infinite Illumination, as part of his PhD research at MIT. The scanning work was interrupted by COVID safety protocols and was later completed as part of this project.
Ideum crafted a fly-through animation leading visitors from the doors outside of a digital temple complex into an internal viewing gallery where photogrammetry facsimiles of seven Buddhist sculptures can be explored.