Against the backdrop of the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, a digital revolution juxtaposing the past and present is under way.
It is happening in the Tower of David Museum, where a staff of blue-chip technological experts and curators have worked for more than a year to usher state-of-the-art technology into the museum experience.
The capstone of that effort was on full display Monday during an unprecedented conference in Israel called “Museums in the Digital Age: Enhancing the Visitor Experience.”
Cosponsored by the Association of Museums in Israel ( ICOM ) and the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites , the event featured a “Hacking the Walls” “hackathon” and brought experts from Israel and abroad together to open up the dialogue about the use of new technologies to enhance the museum environment.
The keynote speaker at the conference, Martijn Pronk, a digital expert from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was joined by Israeli experts from academia to discuss the fields of gamification, human/computer interaction, wearable technologies and software development.
Tower of David Museum head of digital media Eynat Sharon is one of the architects of the digital revolution Israel hopes to share with museum curators from around the globe.
“We want to stay relevant in the 21st century, and we want to let people know that we are willing to bring cutting-edge technology to the experience of visiting a museum – especially a museum like the Tower of David, which is a historical site and an archeological site,” she said. “We want to bring in a new language that speaks to everyone today.”
That language, Sharon said, harnesses digital means to enhance the visitor experience, which the museum began to master in January 2015.
“Last year, we launched six different products, including an Augmentiguide [augmented- reality guide] from the top of the Phasael Tower and a tablet-based visual and audio mobile guide of more than 100 different landmarks in Jerusalem,” she said. “Each landmark that you can see on the top of King Herod’s Phasael Tower of old and new Jerusalem is pinpointed on a tablet. All you have to do is touch the pinpoint, and the secrets of the city are revealed.”
The technology, which was created by former soldiers with mapping experience, is waiting to get patented, Sharon said.
In the meantime, the Agumentiguide is the first of its kind in Israel, she said.
The museum is also the first in the country to offer an augmented-reality game on tablet for kids called “Swipe the Citadel,” allowing them to learn the history of Jerusalem and the Citadel while running through its secret pathways on challenges and missions.
“What we are seeing over the past few years is the fact that there is a very large shift for the visitor, who is becoming less and less passive and more active,” Sharon said.
“We are talking about visitors who are participants who want to share their ideas and use their phones, and the museum needs to find a way to use these devices in order to bring the content in a new way.”
Caroline Shapiro, the museum’s director of international public relations, said Israel is leading museums and heritage sites across the globe in the digital revolution.
“Last Thursday and Friday was the first museum-sponsored hackathon in Israel and the first augmented-reality-, virtual-reality-focused event in Jerusalem,” she said, “and the winners of the hackathon today used AR and VR in their products because that is the best technology that there is.”
Tower of David Museum director and chief curator Eilat Lieber compared the advancement of technology for museums to advancement in other fields, including medicine.
“When we talk about technology, we can see in the field of medicine, for example, the need to advance technology because it involves critical issues for people around the world,” she said.
“And because we are the museum of Jerusalem, and of course Jerusalem is meaningful for half of the population of the world – and most of them won’t come to Jerusalem but are still interested in the content and still want to see and learn – we can give them the experience with technology.”
Moreover, Lieber said it is important to the museum to cast a different light on a capital that is frequently defined by conflict.
“The idea is to take Jerusalem out of the walls and into the world because, unfortunately, sometimes a political situation is complicated, and all you hear about Jerusalem is bad news,” she said. “But this is not true. Jerusalem is like a treasure trove, and we want to build a bridge with the right technology, and this is the first step.”