The Next Internet and the Museum of Ideas

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“It’s just beautiful to see it again,” said Terry Rofkar, beaming at a baby carrier made about a century ago by a Tlingit weaver from southeast Alaska. On a balmy September evening in Philadelphia, her friend Lucy Fowler Williams listened intently as Rofkar, a renowned Tlingit weaver herself, told her how to hold the intricate basket so that it could be better seen. Fowler Williams, keeper of the American section of the Penn Museum, kept up a lively conversation while a camera zoomed in on several artifacts in the museum’s collections, counting the number of stitches in an inch and discussing the materials with Rofkar, who was sitting 3,400 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska.

Their meeting was made possible by an Internet connection that can transfer data at a rate of one gigabit per second. This system and the people who are building it are known as Internet2—which appears poised to transform archaeology.

Cultural knowledge of an artifact may be held by only a few tribal elders, who might have difficulty traveling to Philadelphia to study the museum’s vast collections. A faster Internet connection could allow them to see and work with artifacts, and unlock some of their knowledge, said Bill Wierzbowski, assistant keeper of the American section. “The possibility exists that they are going to recognize something that hasn’t been seen in a long, long time, which the people who are here physically might not pick up on.”

Dr. Richard Leventhal, the Williams Director of the museum, co-chairs a new interest group within the Internet2 organization with Greg Palmer, executive director of MAGPI (a more poetic acronym for the decidedly unpoetic Mid-Atlantic Gigabit point of presence in Philadelphia for Internet2). MAGPI is the access point to Internet2 for Penn and other education and research institutions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Palmer and Leventhal are leading a nationwide conversation about how the latest advances in Internet infrastructure could benefit a wide range of anthropological and archaeological projects, from education, to curation, to research. Although museums have traditionally excelled as safe places to keep objects, they must become more outward looking, Leventhal says. “I cannot move my archaeological site from Belize here to show my students. I can’t even take most of the objects from Belize that I dig up and bring them back here to the museum. But using Internet2, I can take my students virtually on tours of archaeological sites [and] on tours to examine artifacts and materials from around the world.”

Internet2 has been “the premier, private research-and-education network” for the United States since 1992, developing the applications and infrastructure to meet the demands of the nation’s academic institutions, says Palmer, who works out of Penn’s Office of Information Systems and Computing.

Palmer predicts that the combination of high-speed communication with older techniques will be powerful in archaeology and anthropology. “There are literally millions and millions of artifacts ranging from photographs, objects, [and] scholarly papers, to entire buildings that remain unexcavated. If a repository were created that would permit the examination of these digitized objects, using the technology tools available to capture them in a variety of formats … then the Internet2 and adjoining international networks become the method of access.”

During the national meeting of Internet2 in Philadelphia, the museum hosted a gala to showcase some promising applications of the technology. Janet Monge Gr’80, keeper of the physical anthropology section of the museum, demonstrated how medical imaging has revolutionized the study of mummies—and Internet2 could allow more people to use the new data. “In the past, scholars had to carefully unwrap the layers of textiles and artifacts from around the human remains in order to document their internal structure,” she explained. Nowadays, Monge and her colleagues bring mummies across the street to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, to be examined in the imaging suite on Sundays, when there is little demand for the equipment from actual patients.

In a digital video Monge showed how a fiber-optic camera proved that a mummified woman had inhaled a piece of one of her own teeth, still lodged within her lungs. The procedure left the mummy virtually untouched.

The recording of these images in digital format means that very large amounts of data must be analyzed and archived. With Internet2, scientists in several locations could take part in these processes and easily share data; in some cases, even the instruments could be shared.

However, the real promise of the technology is to change the nature of museums, allowing them to create new kinds of access for new kinds of users, all around the world. As Leventhal puts it, “We are not just a museum of artifacts. We are not just a museum of people. We are a museum of ideas.”

—John H. Walker Gr’99

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