Have you heard of the Stein Luminary? It’s an all-digital museum on Boise State’s campus and it’s unbelievably cool. Honestly, words and photos can’t really do it justice. It’s one of those things that you need to experience in real life.
What is the Stein Luminary
The Keith and Catherine Stein Luminary is a fully digital museum inside of the Center for the Visual Arts at Boise State University (1110 S. Capitol Blvd. Boise, Idaho). Walking in, it looks like a small movie theater, though there are no chairs. Three of the four walls are floor-to-ceiling screens, the words “Welcome to the Stein Luminary” floating on the east wall. While this looks like a simple screen saver, if you touch any of the walls a plume of what looks like smoke erupts from the place where your hand made contact and swirls out in all directions (see in the photo above).
It’s super cool – and it’s only the beginning.
“My dream is that other universities will get their luminary, just like universities have libraries,” said Lisa Hunt, Interim Director of the Stein Luminary. “It's such a great teaching space for all disciplines – not just art.”
The original idea was to build a world museum on Boise State’s campus, with a goal of bringing works from around the world to Bosie. This was back in 2018, right around the time that Google Arts & Culture was kicking off and people were starting to bring 360 degree cameras into museums. While these were very cool new ways to visit museums and explore exhibits, there were limits. If a user were to zoom in to try and examine the details, images became super blurry and grainy. That all changed with Amit Sood (you can watch his TED Talk about this here), who figured out how to zoom in on photographs at high definition.
In 2019, The Met, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and a handful of other museums started releasing their whole collections as high resolution and open source, which means that anyone could use them. This new source of information changed the direction of Boise State’s world museum to becoming a space where people could explore these high resolution images, and thus the Stein Luminary was born.
Building the Stein Luminary
The Stein Luminary is truly one of a kind. It’s a collection of over 45 million pixels of high resolution images, which are categorized and stored in supercomputers that project onto touch-activated glass walls. Many of the images are from museums around the world, but there’s also images and videos of landscapes, space, people, and animals. It’s the only exhibit of its kind at the university level.
The software was custom built by a company in Portland and continues to expand with work from Boise State students. Everything from code to curation is handled by students.
“Right now I have about 15,000 works of art in the back end. All of it has come in because our computer science graduate students wrote the code to create a content management system that would go in and get the museum artwork, bring it into our system, and make it zoomable and get the data from it and everything like that,” said Hunt.
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There’s another crew of work-study students and interns who are studying art history and graphic design, and music. They are in charge of curation, or choosing topics and works to bring into the Stein Luminary. Much of the curation is driven by class needs, like bringing in art from specific artists or time periods. But the sky's the limit here, sometimes quite literally. The recent photos from the James Webb Space Telescope can be blown up and zoomed in at high definition, revealing stars and galaxies that would be missed by looking at the photos with the naked eye.
Exploring the Stein Luminary
Tap one of the walls in a certain area and a menu will pop up, displaying different modes from which you can view like “color mode”, “explorer mode” or “timeline mode”.
For our first example, Hunt chooses timeline mode, then chooses Northern Renaissance art. The walls morph into a timeline displaying art dating back to 1485. She chooses a year and hundreds of works of art come up on all three walls like tiny thumbnails on a desktop computer, except these thumbnails float like stars in space. She walks over to a thumbnail, places her hands on two of the corners and moves her arms wider, the painting growing with her fingertips until it’s towering in front of us. Every tiny detail is now massive.
“So with oil painting, they painted in layers of glazes, which you can see here now,” explains Hunt. “We can start to really see the subtlety of the velvet, the gold hair, and the miniature figures in the background. When you look at the original, you can't really see these details. You can’t get that close in the museum, either.”
The ability to examine such details, the breadth of works waiting to be explored, and the never ending curation is what makes this such a special place. There’s sculptures of cats, works all about dogs, horses, and even an entire exhibit on insect artwork. There’s art of gardens spanning thousands of years. There’s ancient scripture. You can look at artifacts from Ancient Peru, Egypt and China. There’s hundreds of different quilts, which you can zoom in on to reveal hundreds of types of stitching. You can explore specific artists, like Van Gogh. Hunt pulled up a Van Gogh painting and zoomed until it covered all three walls. Surrounded by the art, fully immersed, it was like being in the painting.
Artwork isn’t the limit here, and the many different studies at Boise State have helped expand the possibilities within the Stein Luminary. Theater students have come in to study clothing from certain time periods while designing sets and costumes. A writing class picked a portrait from some place and time in history, then wrote a story from that person’s perspective about seeing the new James Webb Telescope images. Graphic design students used the luminary to blow up artwork and fine tune designs. A class studying the history of the environment watched a video of Antarctica melting, with three different years on the three different walls. A math class studied fractal geometry, where they zoomed in and kept seeing patterns repeated and expanded. Geosciences classes use it to view drone imagery and study landscapes from above.
All of these classes aren’t necessarily studying new material, but they are able to see the material in a completely different perspective. And the best thing is, you don’t have to be a Boise State student to enjoy this magical place.
The Stein Luminary is open to the public Tuesday-Friday from 12-5pm. You can go in and explore anything you want. They also have occasional events and there’s two events coming up in February: Witches of Yesterday, Witches of Today: A Poetry Performance is happening on February 1. And on February 2, there’s an evening lecture with scholar, digital archeologist, and media historian, Dr. Erkki Huhtamo.
You can learn more about the Keith and Catherine Stein Luminary at www.boisestate.edu/luminary.
Thanks for reading!
With love from Boise,
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