Reality replaces virtual reality

What was supposed to be a cinema and media studies course to create virtual reality films on the Philadelphia Museum of Art collections became individual films by the students about the realities and connections to the pieces they researched.

students in the vr class presenting their work
In a course about creating virtual reality films, student teams, including this one focused on the French medieval cloister with elements from the Abbey of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), presented their project ideas to a group of PMA curators to get their feedback. (Pre-pandemic photo)

Instead of creating a virtual reality film about the Japanese teahouse in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) for her cinema and media studies class, Penn student Jean Chapiro created a tea ceremony in her own house in Mexico City and a documentary film about what she was experiencing during the pandemic.

“My project was born out of the need to meet the requirements of the course, but also the need to communicate what I was experiencing,” says Chapiro, now a rising senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. “It was the perfect vehicle to express myself.”

peter decherney wearing vr goggles
Professor Peter Decherney in a VR headset (left) with H. Kristina Haughland, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s curator of costume and textiles, who worked with one of the student teams throughout the semester.

What was supposed to be a course to create virtual reality films centered on objects in the PMA became individual films by the students about their personal realities, and connections to the pieces they researched.

“This was a hands-on, collaborative, object-based course in which students traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to work with curators and the Museum’s collection to make virtual reality films. When Penn moved to remote learning, we realized that none of those elements of the course could go online,” says Professor Peter Decherney, an English professor and director of the Cinema & Media Studies Program. “We were the one course to go from virtual to real.”

The PMA’s Ariel Schwartz, associate director of interactive technology, co-taught the course with Decherney, along with May graduate Melisande Mclaughlin as a teaching assistant. Several PMA curators participated as well, meeting with students and attending in-person presentations of the proposed projects just before the pandemic restrictions went into place.

Ariel Schwartz from the PMA
Ariel Schwartz, the PMA’s associate director of interactive technology, co-taught the course with Decherney. (Pre-pandemic photo)

The teaching team had to recast the experience, taking into account the course goals, curriculum, syllabus, work that had already been completed, and what the students could reasonably accomplish from home.

“We turned the assignment inward to create a work of personal expression. Before the shutdown, we focused more on the VR aspect of the projects, showing place or context. After moving online, the context became their own individuality and what that object means to them,” Schwartz says. “I’m amazed at what they did—very powerful stuff.”

The three areas/objects the class researched and planned to film in the PMA were the Japanese Ceremonial Teahouse, the French medieval cloister with elements from the Abbey of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines, and a 19th-century dress and 1868-69 photograph of a young girl wearing it.

The students had conducted rigorous research, creating annotated bibliographies, attending course sessions in the PMA, and speaking with the curators. Eventually, they would be expected to incorporate their research into their films and a paper. They had just started to learn about using the cameras and sound equipment.

Decherney was able to give 360-degree cameras to about a third of the class, while the other students used their own cameras or phones at home. The class met in videoconference sessions and used the academic platform Canvas for threaded discussions.

We were the one course to go from virtual to real. Professor Peter Decherney, an English professor and director of the Cinema & Media Studies Program

“We learned so much about the students through their projects. The new approach to the class made it a more personal and warm experience,” Decherney says. “In some ways, these projects helped us understand the original Museum objects better, connected not just through academic research and history, but also in very personal ways.”

The teams had taken still photographs of the collections before the shutdown, which were made available for use in their films. May graduate Brittany Levy, a communications major from Rydal, Pennsylvania, went to the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and used a 360 camera to film the last tea ceremony before it closed because of the pandemic.

tea ceremony video by chapiro
Student Jean Chapiro created a tea ceremony in her own house in Mexico City (pictured) and a documentary film about what she was experiencing during the pandemic.

Chapiro, a double major in visual studies and communication, created a tea ceremony in her home’s garden filled with blooming bougainvillea, using a tea set she bought in Japan on a trip with her family, because she loves matcha green tea and is fascinated with ceramics.

She discovered in her research that Buddhist monks created the green tea ceremony during an era of wars and famine in Japan, making space and time to reflect. “That’s what I thought what we needed right now, a space where we can breathe and take a step back and have perspective on what we are going through,” she says. In the film, the calmness of the ceremony is juxtaposed against the stress and chaos of the pandemic in the news.

Rising senior Yuxi Wei was also on the teahouse team and chose to film his father explaining tea customs while demonstrating the tea ceremony in their home in China. Speaking in Chinese, translated with English subtitles, his father uses a family tea set with an intricately carved jade tea tray and shows his collection of tea storage objects. Wei is pursuing degrees in both cinema and media studies in the College and business analytics in The Wharton School.

film by michael wenger
In his project, English major Michael Wenger filmed himself rowing on a lake and reading in the woods (pictured).

The team that chose the Abbey were planning a VR film to create an experience that would surround the structure with blue skies and flowering gardens, all with a soundtrack from the outdoors. The space inspired several individual films that examined empty streets and buildings, and even the quiet contemplation of monks by rising junior English major Michael Wenger from New York City, who filmed himself rowing on a lake and reading in the woods.

Jessica Ramses, a rising junior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, filmed in her Cairo neighborhood, including the grand Gazirah Palace, now a hotel, patterned after Versailles. While relating the architectural elements to those in the Abbey, she tells stories of going there with her parents to have lunch when she was a child, running through the hallways, peeking into each unique public room.

Not allowed inside the Gazirah Palace during the pandemic, she filmed the outside, and incorporated family photos and video from her blogs about of sites around Egypt, including the Pyramids and the Nile and the beach, which she shot while hosting visits by friends from Penn in recent years.

“I mixed and matched all videos together and tried to tell my story in the most honest way possible. I worked two days continuously on the project: It was a great break from math and statistics and probabilities,” she says.

The course was the last one she could take in the humanities, given the demands of her major. “I wanted to make it worth it,” she says. “I love studying math and science, but at same time I have a love for art and video production, which allow for creativity.”

The 19th-century dress, made of a dark flowered fabric, was remarkable because it was a miniature of one designed for a grown woman, yet worn in a photo by a child, Martha Rebecca Griffith, who lived to only three years old.

“The dress inspired some students to think about their own past, and inspired students to create their own mysteries,” Decherney says. The team’s original plan was to create a museum-come-to life virtual reality film similar to the “Night at the Museum” movie trilogy.

Haughland with the student team focused on the 19th-century dress. They sorted through 19th-century photos of dresses and children in dresses and compared them with the item from the PMA’s collection. (Pre-pandemic photo)

The film by Gizem Dal, who graduated in May from Penn Engineering with a degree in digital media design, features her and her roommate playing roles as sisters who discover the photograph in their family home. They work to try to solve the mystery, showing research on other child dresses from the period. The film includes an interview with H. Kristina Haughland, the PMA’s curator of costume and textiles, who worked with the dress team throughout the semester.

In their film’s story, they eventually connect the girl and the dress with their own family history. “Soon we realized that rather than solving the mystery, we were just going to have more questions,” narrates Dal, who is from Istanbul. She is continuing her studies at Penn in the coming year, pursuing a master’s degree in computer graphics and game technology.

Of the 17 students in the class, 11 were seniors who graduated in May, including Alina Peng, who is from the Princeton, New Jersey area. She related the time of the girl in the photograph to the time of today’s pandemic. Her video was a farewell to Penn in her last days on campus, including her favorite locations, such as Locust Walk, the library, the Bookstore, and Penn Park, interspersing shots of her with her friends throughout her four years.

“There was certainly trauma and sadness about what was lost when everyone had to leave campus, in addition to anxiety and fears about the pandemic, and uncertainty about what the immediate future holds. Many of the students’ films responded to those emotions,” Decherney says. “I think being seniors heightens that sense, as well as entering a new stage of life.”

Once everyone had all submitted their rough cuts, they had a three-hour videoconference session with PMA curators to critique their work, as they had originally planned to do with their virtual reality team videos.

“It turned into a film festival. We were literally gathered around the world at the same time, which is mind-boggling,” Schwartz says.

“The Museum staff got as much out of it as students,” he says. “Curators are always thrilled when students show interest in objects. It really pleased them to be a part of this. I know they would love to have this shared more broadly and will want to do this again.”

Schwartz and Decherney both have experience with film and created their own documentaries like the students in the course. Decherney had worked with Penn students using virtual reality and 360 cameras in a summer abroad course in Kenya, and a summer film project in Puerto Rico, to produce documentaries. He taught the first Virtual Reality Lab course during last year’s spring semester in partnership with Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships: Students made a film about the Global Guides at the Penn Museum, and another about refugees and a food truck in West Philadelphia.

Schwartz and Decherney are already looking forward to recreating the course for next spring semester, incorporating some of what they learned this year, a hybrid of the original focus on the objects and the unexpected focus on how student personal connections can reflect on them as well.

“It was amazing to see how all of us from different teams had the same prompt but made something unique: Every project was so personal, so profound and deep, and told people’s stories,” Chapiro says. “I think the class gave us a space to speak out. It became a vehicle for us to express our own unique voice. I don’t think that would have happened without the pandemic.”

Homepage image: In a collaborative, object-based spring course co-taught by Peter Decherney (back), Penn students traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) to work with curators, including H. Kristina Haughland (left), and the collection, to make virtual reality films. Haughland and PMA Curator of Chinese Art Hiromi Kinoshita (right) experiment with a VR device.