A blog post by Denise Cheung and Jessica Yung
MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies, University of Manchester

What do you think of when someone mentions an interactive display in a museum?

Hidden away in a dark gallery just a hallway beyond the ticket desk at the Rijksmuseum, you will find yourself submerged in a forest of masts and sails. As if it weren’t eerie enough, the lacquer of each ship model glistens under spotlights, giving you the impression that you’re standing in a crypt of maritime majesty. Yet, the real majesty lies at the far end of the room, set aside to one wall: a beautiful scale gunship model, gliding upon static seas at just under three meters in length from bow to stern. Split in half, the model shows the complex beehive network of rooms and decks, filtered by a sheet of glass smudged by various hand prints from previous visitors. Here, the real magic begins.


On a loop, small figures tending their seafaring duties fade in and out like small ghosts as though completely unaware that their ship had been miniaturised, beached, and displayed in the glass cases of the Ship Model gallery on the ground floor of Amsterdam’s impressive Rijksmuseum. Yet there exists no sign of trickery. No visible projectors. No visible strings or obvious mirrors. A true spectacle without the science. Just a dark room and simple lighting. Perhaps.


For those of us familiar with theatrical techniques, you’ll know Pepper’s Ghost. Created in 1862 by John Henry Pepper for a Charles Dickens theatrical show, the technique plays upon the use of glass to be both transparent and reflective. Back in the day, if you angled the glass 45°, when you shine a light on an object, it would be reflected in the glass and appear to be in the same room as the one you’re seeing through the glass. A real ghost-like image. Now, Rijksmuseum’s harnessed the power to reflect projected video loops precisely onto the decks of that ship model. The digital show stopper is enough to overshadow any iPad or any touch screen that are found in museums today.

Combining Nineteenth Century theatrical techniques with modern technology? The Rijksmuseum really has it all.