University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History launches new virtual exhibit on prehistoric whales

3D exhibit offers up-close encounters with marine mammals

The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History’s new virtual exhibit, “Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea,” features a digitized 3D model of a fossilized Dorudon. This skeleton cast hangs in the brick-and-mortar museum. (Saganworks)

ANN ARBOR – Though the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History remains closed to visitors during the pandemic, its staff have come up with innovative ways to engage students, educators and patrons from home.

A new online 3D experience about prehistoric whales will launch this week, offering its audience an “immersive exploration into the unusual evolution and adaptation of whales, whose ancient ancestors walked on land,” according to the museum.

Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea” was developed in partnership with Ann Arbor company Saganworks and invites the audience to learn more about three prehistoric whale skeletons that are currently on view at the museum: Basilosaurus, Dorudon and Maiacetus.

“We’re proud of this presentation because it uniquely brings together information and images that are scattered around our physical museum as well as digital content that is not easily accessible,” Amy Harris, director of the U-M Museum of Natural History said in a statement.

“For the first time, visitors will have an opportunity to have a close encounter with one of the prehistoric whale skeletons displayed far overhead in our entrance atrium.”

The Maiacetus skeleton which hangs in the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History is a cast of one of the best preserved early whale fossils ever found. Most of the entire skeleton was present, and most of the bones were still connected. At about eight feet long, Maiacetus was only a bit bigger than a human. It is featured in the new virtual exhibit, “Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea.” (Saganworks)

Viewers can use on-screen joysticks to “walk around” the virtual room. They can also hover over and click on photos and specimens to watch videos of U-M researchers explaining the materials they’re seeing or read didactic materials.

“One thing that I felt very strongly about is that I did not want to re-create the in-person experience at the museum,” Melissa Westlake, UMMNH assistant director for exhibits said in a statement.

“360-degree videos and virtual tours have become the norm over the past year, but I was invested in creating something new for our audiences that will outlive the pandemic and offer a great resource as an extension of our physical space, instead of a replication.”

In addition to designing the virtual space with Saganworks, Westlake and UMMNH worked with Museums Victoria in Australia to scan an additional Pygmy Right Whale skeleton.

“What is really neat about this exhibit is that it brings different resources together that would be nearly impossible to put together in an actual space,” Westlake said in a statement.

“Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea” is now available online and can be accessed 24/7 by members of the public and teachers. Ann Arbor Public Schools will integrate the exhibit into their 7th grade coursework as well as several U-M faculty members.

“The concept of Saganworks began after a visit to the British Museum. I thought to myself, ‘What if I could take these collections home with me?’ Four years later, I launched Saganworks,” Don Hicks, U-M alumnus and CEO of Saganworks said in a statement.

Graphic images cover the walls of the new University of Michigan Museum of Natural History virtual exhibit, “Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea,” showcasing fun facts about these ancient whales. (Saganworks)

“This exhibit and partnership with the U-M Museum of Natural History brings my vision for this application full circle by giving visitors the power to take home exclusive collections and breaking down barriers for curators such as time, location and the limitations of physical space.”

Harris said that visitors will “return to our space in the near future,” but did not offer an official date.


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