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A hands-on experience with the Thomson Collection

March 4th, 2014

The touchscreen recently installed in the Thomson Collection of European Art (Gallery 107). Photo by Craig Boyko/Art Gallery of Ontario.

The touchscreen recently installed in the Thomson Collection of European Art (Gallery 107). Photo by Craig Boyko/Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Thomson Collection of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario includes about 900 objects, mainly northern European sculpture and decorative arts dating from the early Middle Ages to the mid-19th century.

In addition to the collection’s cornerstone artwork, Peter Paul Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents, it has both sacred and secular objects including a renowned group of medieval and Baroque ivories, as well as fine examples of silver, Limoges enamel, boxwood carving, medieval manuscripts, carved portrait medallions and nearly 100 portrait miniatures from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It’s a varied collection that captures visitors’ interest, and they’ve told us that they want to know more.

Staff from our Digital Services department worked hard to create a new entry point to the Thomson Collection, in the form of an interactive touchscreen. You’ll find the screen close to the AGO’s entrance (Gallery 107), a room that also contains two paintings (from the Thomson Collection’s Canadian works), a ship model and a vitrine full of small objects from the European Collection.

These objects and paintings represent the Thomson Collection’s European, Canadian and Ship Model components, and each object has a story behind it and reason, including why Ken Thomson collected and appreciated it. In addition to getting an introduction to Thomson and the legacy of his collection, visitors can learn about the objects in depth by selecting them on the touchscreen. They are also directed to other spaces in the Gallery with more of the same kind of object.

Photo by Craig Boyko/Art Gallery of Ontario.

Photo by Craig Boyko/Art Gallery of Ontario.

How’d we do it?

The display screen is Microsoft’s 55-inch Perceptive Pixel touch display (learn more about it here). To get the project up and running, AGO photographers had to re-shoot each item using “focus stacking.” This process extends the depth of field in a shot (making more of it in sharp focus) without losing file data using multiple exposures and post-production software.

A folding knife with boxwood handle from the Thomson Collection of European Art. The image on the right — created using the photo-stacking technique — has an extended depth of field.

A folding knife with boxwood handle from the Thomson Collection of European Art. The image on the right — created using the photo-stacking technique — has an extended depth of field.

A shallow depth of field has always been an issue with macro photography. The objects included in the touchscreen project are almost all very small, so we adopted this photo merging or “stacking” software as a new approach. It allows the viewer to see these detailed objects more clearly than ever before.

What’s next? Our Digital team is full of ideas on how to make the experience even better, including enhanced way-finding and the ability to create personalized tours. We hope you’ll spend a few minutes with the touchscreen on your next visit. And if you’ve already had a chance to try it out, share your thoughts on the experience in the comments below.

Conservation Notes: Insider’s look at a prayer bead

December 18th, 2013


Credit: Prayer Bead, The Thomson Collection at the AGO, 29365. Courtesy of The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario, Sustainable Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario, 2012, and Eric Fournier, Chief Technology Officer, ORS Visual.

In a previous Conservation Notes post we introduced you to work that Lisa Ellis, conservator of sculpture and decorative art, and Sasha Suda, associate curator of European Art, were doing to learn more about prayer beads from the Thomson Collection of European Art here at the AGO. Working with colleagues from the University of Western Ontario, Ellis and Suda used micro tomography (microCT) to better understand prayer beads and how they were constructed.

This time, to create the image above, the Sustainable Archaeology (SA) facility in the Department of Anthropology at Western University, in London, Ont., provided scans using a Nikon Metrology XT 225 microCT scanner.

The video slices through the exterior shell of a 16th-century Northern European wooden microcarving to reveal an intricate interior showing the Last Judgement. The microCT data set has been manipulated with ORS Visual, a program produced by a Montreal-based company. This software transforms the microCT data, which is based on X-ray images, into the comprehensible, animated scenes shown here.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: A very fine resolution

March 18th, 2013

Prayer bead inside micro-CT scanner. Sustainable Archaeology, University of Western Ontario.

Micro-CT scanning prayer beads from the Thomson Collection

The AGO’s Lisa Ellis, conservator of sculpture and decorative art, and Sasha Suda, assistant curator of European Art, travelled to the University of Western Ontario to answer questions about the intricate construction of two prayer beads from the Thomson Collection currently featured in the exhibition Idea Lab: Research at the AGO, Investigating Miniature Ivory and Boxwood Carvings, running from July 19, 2012, to April 2014.

Micro-CT slice of prayer bead 29365 revealing construction methods and materials. Click to enlarge. (Prayer bead. Workshop of Adam Dirksz. AGOID.29365. The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario.)

The complexity of the prayer beads has until now defied attempts to fully understand their construction. Some of these miniature carvings contain close to 100 separately carved elements. Traditional tools like X-radiography and microscopy cannot not fully explain how these objects were made — the way they are pieced together obscures joins from view and stacks elements, making it impossible to fully decipher the objects’ interiors with X-rays.

In order to understand these objects, we required much more sophisticated imaging. For help with our problem, we tracked down Dr. Andrew Nelson and doctoral student Zoe Morris from the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Anthropology and Dr. Ron Martin from its Department of Chemistry. This highly specialized group of experts introduced us to micro-computed tomography, also known as high-resolution X-ray tomography or micro-CT scanning.

Prayer bead. Workshop of Adam Dirksz. The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Sustainable Archaeology facility at Western University has a Canadian Foundation for Innovation–funded industrial Nikon Metrology XT H 225 system microtomography (micro-CT) scanner with a resolution so fine that it can distinguish details as small as 36 micrometers — a third of the diameter of a human hair — in the scans of the prayer beads. Just like medical scanners (which have a slice thickness of 600 micrometers), micro-CT scanners perform non-invasive studies to show internal features not of human anatomy, in this case, but of archaeological and bioarchaeological materials and now artworks.

Micro-CT scanning is now successfully exposing the construction secrets of these superlative carvings: scans of the two prayer beads have revealed hidden joins, pegs and adhesives. With the support of our collaborators at Western, the AGO team is eager to continue our micro-CT investigations into these fascinating objects and scan the remaining eight prayer beads in the Thomson Collection.

Zoe Morris, University of Western Ontario, manipulating and interpreting the scans.

More resources:

Learn more about the project in this CODART e-zine article by Lisa Ellis and Sasha Suda.


This animation is a surface rendered model of the prayer bead, created from a 21 gigabyte, three-dimensional volume of micro-CT data, using VGStudio MAX. Animation created by Zoe Morris. Courtesy of Sustainable Archaeology: Western University, 2012. Prayer bead. Workshop of Adam Dirksz. 1500-1550. AGOID 29365. The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program