October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Panoramic Collections Viewer (PCV)

Martin Woolner, Innovate - Centre for the Creative Industries, University of Plymouth, and  Graham Howard, System Simulation Ltd, Covent Garden, London, United Kingdom


Developed to extend the physical exhibition and narrative spaces of an organisation in response to the need for greater public access to artefacts, PCV is an interactive system based on high quality panoramic, 2D and 3D imaging for viewing archives via an organisation’s collection management system. The software provides a simple interface for intuitive and fluid use, building on existing digitisation and exhibition spaces to create high quality environments in which to view artefacts. The use of high resolution photography in creating the environments sets the PCV software apart from existing 3D modelled environments, providing museum and heritage organisations with a long lasting solution to exhibiting their collections in virtual reality. By connecting the recording and management of assets to their curation and display, the result of the PCV project is a tool for re-examining and re-evaluating new approaches to curation, collections and exhibition space in a visually compelling visual arena.

Keywords: panoramic, curation, collection, digitisation, virtual reality, public access


This paper and workshop demonstration will present to museum professionals an advanced prototype of the Panorama Collections Viewer (PCV) developed by Innovate – Centre for Creative Industries and extended in a research partnership with System Simulation Ltd.

The PCV project was initiated in response to the UK government’s pressure on Museums and Heritage organisations to provide increased public access to collections and archive material: “Collections are potentially museums’ most precious asset - but what business would allow up to 80% of its assets to go unused, while continuing to consume significant resources?”  (Jane Glaister 2005)

Museum and Heritage organisations are eager to listen to and create dialogue with their existing audiences and to discover new participants, targeting the interests of the population at a local and national level through outreach activities, in so doing encourage wider public engagement. A recent UK, Department of Culture Media and Sport consultation document (2005) raised questions of museums concerned with the challenges and opportunities faced by England’s museums. Under the heading of ‘Collections and their Uses’, two of the questions asked were:

Q1: How should museums develop and utilise their collections to serve the concerns and interests of the whole population most effectively? Should this include the releasing of parts of their collections to others, including outside the museum?

Q2: How can the sector ensure that the opportunities offered by ICT, electronic access and digitisation are fully utilised for the benefit of users and reach out to non-users?

The opportunities to reach and engage with wider audiences are greatly enhanced as new technologies revolutionise the ways in which we communicate. The potential of the internet and Web 2.0 are as yet not being fully utilised by the Museum & Heritage sector to increase  virtual access to collections.

When used effectively CAD modelled VRML environments provide the opportunity for the manipulation of digitised objects and the exploration of no longer existing buildings or landscapes and add much to the learning venture, both in terms of educational use and user enjoyment. Despite the advances in computer rendering techniques these environments are artificial in nature comparable with computer gaming environments and not evidencing the level of image quality that those interested in the Arts would naturally expect. As such they have failed to deliver the level of experience which would engage such a visitor. Further to this, full integration with Collections Management Systems and their underlying metadata has not been achieved. There have been a number of experiments and implementations of panoramic views as part of virtual access to museums collections but only in so far as the user remains passive. This workshop will show a system based upon high quality photographic panoramas fully integrated with collections management data to provide a fluid and exciting tool both for the professional museum person and for ordinary learner.


Innovate is the Research and Development Centre for the Faculty of Arts, University of Plymouth UK, specialising in 2D & 3D imaging and object manufacture, contextual research and creative content for VR environments. As originator and developer of the PCV Panoramic imaging and asset manipulation system, Innovate is collaborating with System Simulation Limited (SSL), a software company based in London UK, who have a long and successful track record of working within the Museum and Heritage sector, understanding the demands, ambitions and constraints associated with the sector. The research collaboration has resulted in the linking of Innovate’s panoramic VR environments and expertise with SSL’s comprehensive and robust Index + text and multimedia database system, which is installed at a number of the UK’s national museums.

The Panoramic Collections Viewer (PCV) overview

The PCV uniquely combines Innovate’s navigable panoramic VR environments with a museum’s or heritage venue’s Collections Management database through the interoperability functions of System Simulation’s ‘Index +’ systems.  

Unlike most existing VR environments, the PCV applies high resolution panoramic photography to generate navigable spaces of museum and heritage venues which have been chosen to display digitised assets from collections or archives.  Within the PCV’s Room & Asset Selection environment, the collections management information is explored to select and group appropriate assets into folders using the Organiser, where the gallery files in which the assets are to be displayed are also selected. Layout plans of the rooms are displayed on screen, as are thumbnail images of the assets. The assets, with or without their attached metadata, are placed on the walls, floor and plinths or even floating within the environment using a simple and user-friendly method by which they are automatically scaled and orientated using the guides available to indicate sight-lines.

Immediately the viewing environment enables 360°x 360° navigation of the gallery spaces with the exhibition assets in position. By placing the screen cursor close to an object the attached metadata can be viewed on an overlay page, these overlays can provide information and curators notes but also direct the viewer to further information or detail pages. Assets can be moved around the environment and reviewed in the panorama until the exhibition is mounted to the user’s satisfaction.

The Environment

The images for the photographic VR environments are taken using a high-resolution SLR camera; a number of images are taken for each space and ‘stitched’ together using appropriate software and the expertise of the photographer. Specific architectural or site details can be photographed in close-up and incorporated into the final VR environment enabling zoom capability on specific items of importance within the viewing system. The spaces involved could be those of institutions existing galleries, rooms and environments within a heritage venue or specific sites associated with the selected artefacts, for example the site of an archaeological dig. The images for the VR environment can be taken in most climatic conditions, during the day or night and due the swift nature of the image capture can provide multiple scenic options for display. Capturing image data for the environments is a bespoke and specialist service but as they are based on high-resolution photography, once an organisation has the images of the environments it wishes, there will be no need for replacing these environments in the foreseeable future. Unlike 3D modelled environments, the images will not date with the technology.

Room & Asset Selection

Assets from the Collections Management System (images, text, 3D artefacts, audio and video,) are identified as image or asset thumbnails within the selection interface. New project folders are generated for specific exhibitions or for each room/space that the exhibition will occupy and the chosen assets are placed within them using standard drag and drop methods. Room / site selection is undertaken in a similar manner with the image files for each environment being treated as another asset.  

Figure 1
Fig 1

The system allows you to collate many different image selections, so that different combinations can easily be compared. The system’s flexible navigation and automatic documentation provides a robust system where multiple interpretations can be initiated and shared, without the need for renewed preparation or wiping of previous decision-making.

Layout Pages

Within the layout pages each room or site is displayed as a plan and elevation, where multiple rooms or sites can be selected.  The asset thumbnail scroll bar is placed next to those of the room / site images. Assets are selected and positioned within the gallery spaces via a simple drag-and drop interface. The system provides guides, ‘sight lines’, to support asset placement and provides positioning data and dimensions for each asset which can be printed to produce hanging information when the PCV is being used for the planning of exhibitions or displays.

The image, video and text files are automatically scaled according to their accompanying metadata and orientated within the space. 3D assets are also automatically scaled and would require manual orientation in the ‘floor’ space.

Figure 2
Fig 2

The metadata associated with each asset from within the original collection management system remains linked, so that information such as the physical dimensions can provide automatic scaling. Contextual information automatically fulfils the information overlays in the viewing environment however there is full flexibility on controlling the extent and detail of this information.


The viewing system is enabled through 360° x 360° navigable, high resolution, panoramic VR environments which provide very low distortion images of the spaces chosen by the museum or heritage venues. These images may be of existing internal gallery spaces or external heritage venues and landscapes.

The environments are navigated using either a mouse, touch pad or roller ball device. As the system enables 360° x 360° navigation, aspects of the viewed space; ceiling, floors, architectural details or landscape can be viewed using the zoom function to be investigated more closely. Like other panoramic object movies, the user can move through each perspective via a series of hotspots, however in this system the assets will be seen in the positions as curated in the layout pages. The images, both moving and still, will appear on the walls and 3D  objects on plinths or on the floor / ground.

Directional or ambient audio files can also be added to the spaces to enrich the viewers experience or to provide support materials to specific assets Audio and text are indicated by signs and buttons which will either start a narration or piece of audio, or in the case of written text, it will appear in either fixed signage attached to the asset or as a floating signage, where further information can be included. The choice is provided for all types of media but this does not restrict the user to having to use them all. The principle which runs through the whole system is one of flexibility, where the user chooses not to include an asset media type; it is simply left out with no empty buttons or signage. In the case of external environments such as archaeological sites for example, the majority of the assets are likely to be in 3D, audio and video form with accompanying text. Again, all assets can be investigated more closely through use of the zoom function or through the detail pages.

Detail Pages

On mouse over or click of an asset, new detail pages are displayed, which contain a range of information which has either been created by the curators or in the educational arena where the public may be adding their own metadata or notes associated with an object. Information might include; simple metadata or tags associated with the artefact, multi layers of catalogue information, associated curator’s notes or links to other items within the museums and other institutions’ collections. The detail pages enable close inspection of assets and allow 3D assets for example to be navigated 360° x 360° and more closely scrutinised.

Figure 3
 Fig 3


The PCV provides open or selective access to digitised collections and archive material enabling visualisation and placement of these assets within a high quality photographic, navigable, VR environment and thus creates a simple, but graphically rich solution to the issues of displaying collections and normally unseen archive material within the public domain. In essence, the museum or heritage organisation is able to multiply its exhibition spaces, exhibiting artefacts and preparing exhibitions in environments appropriate to the items being shown.

From an educational point of view, learners can try out both different exhibitions from museum and heritage organisations’ artefacts and as part of public projects and interaction, exhibit their own work in these spaces. The system increases the ability for public interpretation by simply facilitating the existing content and digitisation endeavours of organisations and making it interactive in visual way, a way in which the character of a heritage environment can be recognised and maintained.

The workshop will consider a number of approaches to increased collection access and utilisation of digital archives including initial exploratory work that has been undertaken at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and at other sites.

 Increased accessibility to digitised collections and the display of those assets within existing or associated spaces creates increased opportunities for an institution to engage with the public, such as:


Through collaborative projects across museums and curatorial teams, with supervised access to each other’s collections using existing networks or via the Web, facilitating the sharing of resources to explore new interpretations of collections and test exhibitions ideas within the proposed gallery spaces or create exhibitions which contain artefacts from geographically disparate collections.

Exploration and Interpretation

Through creative play and invention, museum curators can interact with users: via the Web, within museum spaces or educational environments, to work closely with groups with little or no experience of curation to investigate museum collections and archive materials, learning through experience approaches to construction, interpretation and narration as they generate exhibitions.

Museum Ethos

Providing increased use and curatorial access to gallery resources enabling site visitors’ access to experience sophisticated exhibitions of digitised artefacts from archive collections, navigating within a display format tailored to suite the individual ethos of the Museum.

Public Interaction

Providing opportunities to museums, via the Web, to engage with individuals and groups to establish their own gallery experiences with asset tagging to create a dialogue between the collection and its audience.

Exhibition Memento

Enabling museums to archive exhibitions interactively, providing a navigable ‘experience’ with catalogue information and narratives enabled through user proximity to an artefact.

Updating Past Information

Museums and researchers are enabled to reconstruct and re-hang historical exhibitions for which hanging lists and images are available but for which no image records remain.

The workshop will explore the significance of such curatorial and exhibition opportunities and will discuss how a simple tool like the PCV can alter our approaches to collections, curation and exhibition space.


Glaister, Jane. Museum Association Report presented in the Guardian Newspaper. ‘Show it or offload it, museums told’.  June 14th 2005,12-05. 

Questions raised in - DCMS Department of Culture, Media & Sport Understanding the Future: Museums and the 21st Century Life consultation document Jan - June 2005

Cite as:

Woolner, M., and G. Howard, Panoramic Collections Viewer (PCV) , in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/wooler/wooler.html