Tucked in the back corner of In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s, the Museum’s current special exhibition, is a wall of mirrored glass panels on loan from the V&A Museum in London, England. The panels are huge, standing floor to ceiling, and at certain angles, they catch the light just so and sparkle behind their deep red color.
Imagine what it would be like to walk into a room where these panels covered all four walls. Now imagine what that room would look like in the evening with candlelight making the sparkles dance on all surfaces.
These panels are from the famed Glass Drawing Room of Northumberland House, once located in central London. They were designed for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, by celebrated architect Robert Adam in 1770, and the room was completed five years later. In subsequent years, the room was altered and finally dismantled in 1874, before the house was demolished to make ways for new roads and a more modern London. No one has entered this room for 200 years.
That is, until now.
As part of the exhibition, The Corning Museum of Glass has recreated this now-lost interior in virtual reality (VR) to present visitors with a chance to explore every corner of the room and see the mirrored glass panels come alive in all lights, but especially candlelight.
When plans for the exhibition were first being drawn, the Museum’s digital media team and the exhibition’s curator, Christopher (Kit) Maxwell, arrived at VR as a novel way for guests to experience the room in the most historically accurate way possible. Although it remains possible to see existing spangled glass panels individually, or black and white photos and watercolor paintings of how the room was furnished in the 1870s, it is something else entirely to stand in the room and imagine taking a step back in time. It is fascinating and entirely unique to experience the room virtually, as it was when it was first built, and appreciate the full 360° reflectivity of the space, the magnificent scale of the panels, and all of the room’s original sparkling splendor.
The exhibition’s version of the Glass Drawing Room was developed using Autodesk 3D (a computer graphics program) and Unity (a 3D rendering engine) by Noho and MakeBelieve, a group of virtual reality specialists based in Dublin and Athens. Unity provides a real-time experience that allows the user to move around the room freely or use the controller to jump to any fixed point. Because the period of the room relied on natural or candlelight for illumination, users have the ability to switch between day or night with the press of a button. Switching from day to night is transformative, taking the user back to a warm but vulnerable candlelit time.
To enhance the room’s ambiance as it would have been in preparation for one of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland’s parties, sound effects and music were produced to help bring the room to life. Custom 3D spatial audio allows you to hear the logs crackling in the fireplace and enjoy a period music piece drifting in from a virtual quartet warming up in the adjoining room. The music, specially composed by Tom Hambleton of Undertone Music, is also used to soundscape the exhibition at the Museum.
To produce the highest degree of visual realism, a significant amount of attention and research went into the project, including historical movies like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Photographs of other rooms designed by Robert Adams aided the VR developers along with careful research by Maxwell and members of Noho, who meticulously documented original design drawings, period furniture, a scale model, and several original components of the Glass Drawing Room now located at various houses and museums throughout London. These site visits and the resulting documentation allowed for an unprecedented level of detail, right down to the unique flickering of each candle and the infinite reflections you can catch in the large mirrors when you stand in just the right spot.
This VR experience was originally designed to run on the low-cost Oculus Quest headset within the exhibition space, with a dedicated staff person to assist guests with the new technology. As an added feature, for both accessibility and for those who might not have wanted to use the headset, there would also be a large screen with a touch interactive version of the room as well. However, the COVID-19 pandemic not only postponed the exhibition’s opening by one year but also made the digital media team reevaluate the delivery of the VR experience taking health safety and public willingness to touch shared surfaces into concern. The solution determined was to forego providing the headsets in the gallery, and instead focus on the touchscreen version.
Fortunately, the full VR version of the room is not lost to history but is readily available to anyone with an Oculus Quest headset by visiting https://whatson.cmog.org/vr
The Museum’s advancement and digital media department also created traveling VR kits containing the headset and journal that were shared with members of the Museum’s Ennion society in a round-robin letter style.
Beyond the visitor, the Museum’s ambition is to make the project available to VR developers and other museums or cultural institutions once the exhibition has closed. Project files will be shared on GitHub (an open-source code repository) under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. The Museum is also considering sharing files of the furniture and other elements on Sketchfab (an online platform for publishing and sharing VR content) so that other developers can incorporate them into their own VR projects or use them as a template. The hope is that this project can help inform the field of research on historic interiors and architecture and provide a new way of displaying and interpreting research findings.
As the Museum’s first foray into virtual reality, this awe-inspiring experience aims to provide our visitors with new ways to look at glass in the virtual and real spaces they encounter.
So, don’t miss out!
In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s remains on view at The Corning Museum of Glass through January 2, 2022.