Seaport's new exhibit meshes Arctic landform with virtual reality

Mystic — Mystic Seaport will open a new exhibit Saturday that will allow visitors to walk through a recreated pingo, an Arctic landform, as it grows and then implodes.

Microsoft’s new HoloLens Mixed Reality goggles will allow visitors to experience the Arctic and its wildlife as they walk through and around the artificial pingo, representing a mound or small hill created by ice.

It is a type of traveling exhibit that Seaport officials envisioned hosting when they opened the $11 million Thompson Exhibition Building last year. Not only is it large and interactive and making its debut here, it is designed to attract guests to the Seaport in the dead of winter and help make the museum more of a year-round destination.

“We want people to come here before the summer or miss out on something really cool,” said Nicholas Bell, the museum’s vice president for curatorial affairs.

He added that having the Thompson Building is like “being given the keys to a Ferrari” because it allows the Seaport to do things other institutions cannot do, such as recreating a pingo in a holographic Arctic landscape.

Seaport President Steve White said the exhibit “will be unlike anything we have ever shown at the museum,” calling it “more of an experience than an exhibit.”

Over the past 10 days, the creator of the exhibit, artist John Grade of Seattle, and new media artist Reilly Donovan of Seattle, along with their team of engineers, computer technicians, artists and designers, have painstakingly assembled the 15-foot-tall, 160-square-foot pingo and created the holographic experience in the Thompson Building.

The exhibit is titled “Murmur: Arctic Realities,” a reference to the Arctic wind and sounds made by flocks of Arctic birds in flight called murmurations. It will be open through April 22.

Grade, who creates large-scale sculptures of the natural world from his Seattle studio, first discovered pingos — earth-covered ice formations with a hollow core that grow over centuries and then collapse, pockmarking the tundra — while visiting the Arctic three years ago. Climate change is thought to be shortening the life span of pingos.

Atop a pingo is a popular place to stand for the native Inuit people as well prey and predators alike, Grade said, as pingos offer a distant view of the otherwise flat landscape.

“Everyone wants to be on a pingo,” he said.

Grade said the exhibit places visitors not only in the pingo but in the murmurations.

“I thought it would be very interesting to compare these two phenomena that happen in such different time scales,” Grade said, “one so ephemeral and the other so slow. To try to put a viewer inside each of those things, which is a place none of us literally are ever going to go. What would it feel like, merging them together?”

Grade said he was not trying to exactly simulate a pingo.

“It’s more of a poetic take,” he said.

He said he hopes the exhibit will not only get people to think about the Arctic but, more importantly, get them to look differently at the landscapes they see in their daily lives.

Grade mapped an actual pingo in Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve using a three-dimensional technique called photogrammetry. Then a team of 20 people spent eight months in his studio designing and fabricating the artificial one using steel, hydraulic pistons, pneumatic tubes and Alaskan yellow cedar salvaged from Mitkot Island in Alaska. The team included structural and mechanical engineers and a computer programmer to write the code needed to communicate with the hydraulic/pneumatic system and air compressors which control the pingo’s movements.

After the Seaport, the exhibit will tour other museums before going to its permanent location at the Anchorage Museum.

Donovan, who works in the fields of virtual mixed and augmented reality, said that he and Grade wanted to combine the digital and physical world into a hybrid where they could coexist.

Donovan, meanwhile, had his eyes on Microsoft’s new holographic imaging headset, which has not yet been released to consumers but he felt it would work well with the exhibit. He began researching how the technology actually works and read everything he could find about it.

He called it a “keystone piece of technology for what is to come, what the future will hold through electronic experience.”

He said the holographic experience will allow the exhibit to tell a larger story than just the pingo. The $3,000 headset allows wearers to see swimming fish, swarms of mosquitoes, plants and other wildlife complete with sloshing of water and other audio as they walk around the pingo.

Donovan said he has been talking with Microsoft engineers about what he and Grade are trying to do by integrating the holographic technology into the exhibit. He said they told him he is pushing the boundaries of what they thought was possible with the headsets.

“For a lot of people, they will be as amazed as I was. A lot of people have never experienced anything like this and the magnitude of what is unfolding in front of them,” he said.

The pingo also will host yoga classes on Feb. 10 and March 3, an evening party on Feb. 2, a Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut business after-hours event on Feb. 21 and talks on Saturday by Grade and Donovan. Visit www.mysticseaport.org for more details.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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