3D Viz Display of Mummy

Museums offer many opportunities* for digital augmentation, to visualize the unseen, provide context, and allow more human interaction with fragile and rare objects.

There are many technologies that could be interesting, including visualization and animation (2D and 3D), Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and imaginative combinations of techniques.

The digital technology is particularly valuable when it can give new views of objects to make the invisible visible, and to help tell their story.

Anders Ynnerman and colleagues discuss a clever interactive visualization of a mummy on display in the British Museum. The exhibit is “simple”: a digital display lets visitors explore the insides of the mummy. The digital display presents detailed 3D visualizations computed from MRI scans of the mummy.

[The] mummy is shown on the surface of the table, but, as a visitor moves a virtual slider on the table, the muscles, organs, and skeleton reveal themselves as the skin is gradually peeled away.” ([1], p. 73)

The article sketches key elements of a “work flow of scanning, curating, and integrating the data into the overall creation of stories for the public can lead to engaging installations at museums” (p. 74)

  1. Scanning
  2. Visualization
  3. Interaction
  4. Story telling

The scanning employs now ubiquitous CT scanning, though scanning dehydrated mummies requires adjustments. On the other hand, radiation dosage is less an issue.

Scanning protocols for mummies require custom settings, as the body is completely dehydrated and regular CT protocols assume naturally hydrated tissues” (p. 75)

The data is visualized by volume rendering, which can be done via ray casting. They remark that this is a highly parallel process, and therefore quite suited to contemporary GPU systems. (Game Processor Units (GPUs) are vector coprocessors (a la Illiac IV) designed to rapidly generate 3D scenes, i.e., for video games.)

The algorithm calculates a representation of the tissue depending on settings which reflect the physics of the materials and the X-ray data. Different settings reveal different types of tissue, and the rendering works to make the view understandable through color, texture, and other features.

These techniques generate huge amounts of data for a single study. Continuing developments in storage and data management have made it much easier to handle CT scans. High end, custom systems are no longer necessary to store and manipulate these volumes of data.

The display system is interactive, and projected to a large touch screen. This type of interface is used by experts (as seen on TV), but a public display needs to be more fool-proof and self-explanatory. They also comment that the system needs to be robust (to run unattended for hours without failing) and have consistent performance with no lags or noticeable artifacts.

Finally, the exhibit is designed around a story. In the case of the Gebelein Man mummy, the exhibit tells about the evidence of an apparently fatal wound (a stab in the back), and the suggestion that the individual was “murdered”. This narrative ties the archaeological exhibit to familiar contemporary police fiction, and helps visitors imagine the remains as a fellow human.

To date, developing such a visualization is labor intensive and requires considerable expertise in visualization and data handling. This process can be improved in the future, to make it easier for domain experts to create interactive visualizations to present science and stories to the public.


  1. Anders Ynnerman, Thomas Rydell, Daniel Antoine, David Hughes, Anders Persson, and Patric Ljung, Interactive visualization of 3d scanned mummies at public venues. Commun. ACM, 59 (12):72-81, 2016. http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2016/12/210363-interactive-visualization-of-3d-scanned-mummies-at-public-venues/fulltext

* Opportunities to teach and learn and enjoy, but not  necessarily opportunities to make piles of money. Museums are generally underfunded and over-committed.

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