The Tower of David museum goes digital

Children more accustomed to smartphones and tablets can now experience historical and ancient landmarks with the most advanced technology.

A young girl explores an interactive video game with the Dome of the Rock as its content. (photo credit: COURTESY TOWER OF DAVID)
A young girl explores an interactive video game with the Dome of the Rock as its content.
Jerusalem’s ancient stones are going digital.
That’s the message coming out of the city’s Tower of David Museum, where iPads, smartphones and tablets are now offering visitors cutting-edge technology to experience thousands of years of history.
This made-in-2015 juxtaposition of the digital age to the ancient citadel – almost certain to draw plaudits from some and censure from others, in the debate over the role of museums in the digital age – is being carried out with an eye to engaging the next generation, glued to their gadgets.
Seeking to bolster the number of visitors to this history-loaded medieval fortification in an era of the omnipresent handheld electronic devices, the museum has clearly sided with the new age to upgrade their ancient stones. And, in a quintessential Israeli arrangement, it has partnered with former IDF R&D experts and a flight squadron commander, who have become digital creators-cum-curators for this cultural heritage site.
WHEN THE Tower of David Museum first opened its doors a quarter of a century ago, its models, replicas, dioramas, films and monograms were considered cutting- edge – for 1989.
Nestled just inside the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, the museum has over the last two-and-a-half decades become a top tourist attraction, with nearly 300,000 visitors in the last year.
Its impressive sound-and-light show have won lavish accolades; the panoramic view of the Old City offered from the top of Herod’s tower is among the city’s finest (no small feat in a city of golden views); the citadel’s newly opened moat, built in the Middle Ages, is a must-see add-on; while the cultural activities held in its ancient courtyard have offered the most quintessential Jerusalem backdrop.
But the site with three millennia of history (dating back to the biblical kings of Judah, through the Hasmonean, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Mameluke and Ottoman periods, and up to the British Mandate and contemporary times) was also just that – history-loaded.
“Our goal is to make this history-rich site interesting for everyone, and it is the technology that does this for the young generation,” says Tower of David director Eilat Lieber.
Her challenge was in part perhaps spurred by her own young son, who upon hearing that his mom was becoming director of the museum, said, “Isn’t that place boring?” NOW, WHEN visitors ascend to the top of King Herod’s Phasael Tower, with its vistas of the Old City and beyond – including the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, the Mary Magdalene Church and dozens of the city’s top historical landmarks – they can position a Samsung tablet (available at the museum for NIS 15) over the view; the audiovisual guide, built from the IDF’s mapping technology and dubbed AugmentiGuide, will offer an explanation in Hebrew or English (and from next month in four other languages) on any one of nearly 100 sites visible from the tower and on the digital frame.
“This device enables you to discover the historical and ancient landmarks with the most advanced technology,” says Nir Solomon, vice president of products at Enviewz. “It is especially good in Jerusalem, with its densely situated buildings and rich history.”
The tablet, which could be called “Google Maps on steroids,” allows visitors to touch any one of the scores of “pins” of historic sites that pop as you take in the panoramic view with precision accuracy, providing an explanation of the individual landmark.
“We were overwhelmed by the number of sites that the computer picked up, so we had to filter them and pick out the most interesting ones,” he said.
“The computer identifies what your eye can see and tells you about the place,” explains Enviewz general manager Alon Fishman, who served as director of R&D of the IDF’s major digital mapping project in the 1990s.
He says this detailed level of digital mapping for civilian use was previously only available indoors, while GPS and radar technology were both not that accurate.
“It is the accuracy that gives this the quality edge,” Fishman stresses.
His company reached out to the museum several months ago to suggest such a venture because of the stunning view the top of the tower at the citadel affords. “We were looking for places with interesting views – and where else do I have such a level of content, with thousands of years of history?” ANOTHER DIGITAL option now available at the museum is to rent an iPad (NIS 25) and play a family adventure game, currently available only in Hebrew but in the coming months in English as well.
The hour-and-a-half-long game, dubbed Swipe the Citadel, helps an archeologist find his lost daughter in one of the many hidden nooks of the citadel before time runs out. The game, intended for children aged seven to 12 along with their parents, includes film, animation, puzzles and challenges using award-winning interactive, location- based technology that is the first of its kind in Israel, its developers say.
“We’re helping kids, who today are used to everything being digital, to get much more engaged in the museum,” says Rotem Levim of the Tel Aviv-based The Gamers, a gaming company which produced Swipe the Citadel.
With their young audience in mind, another digital offering now available at the museum is to download (for NIS 10) a smartphone app which offers an interactive detective game called Whose Tower Is It. The 50-minute adventure in the tower, geared for families with children aged four to 10, will allow kids and parents to solve the deceptive question of who built the Tower of David (Hint: It’s not King David).
“Children want to be active, and to solve a mystery with a detective makes all the difference – because if you are active then the whole world is different,” say Quesity co-founders Michal Margulis and Tomer Zimmerman.
“This is a totally new and unique way to explore the museum,” notes Zimmerman, a former commander in an IAF flight squadron and a graduate in aerospace engineering, adding that while the game can be downloaded the world over, it is intended to be played on-site.
Other free options the museum is now offering as part of its digital launch include scanning your smartphone with codes linked to a treasure hunt, and 3D outdoor screens that recreate the grounds of Herod’s palace and pools as they were 2,000 years ago, in the first such outdoor imaging in sunsoaked Israel.
Museum officials say their goal is to get young people engaged with the museum.
“Anyone who has spent time with children and youth today knows how much more challenging it is to get a child to enjoy visiting a museum that isn’t hands-on,” says Lieber.
“Now that we have apps, treasure hunts, iPad games and tablet viewing, we are using a common language with the kids of today, and they can now learn history through all the modern technological means available and become connected to the history of Jerusalem while exploring the citadel,” she enthuses.
“Technology does not replace an exhibit or a site – but can be used as a mediator to enrich the experience.”
Eynat Sharon, director of new media at the museum, says the new digital offerings – which she emphasizes are not replacing traditional guided tours – will provide families a different experience each time they visit.
“This is really a vision for the future of the museum in the digital age,” Sharon says, inviting other hi-tech companies to connect with the Tower of David. “We are at a very challenging time, in regard to how to use technology as a means to connect to the content of the place.
“This is only the beginning.”