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Virtual Tours Make Art Accessible at University of Montana

To accommodate visitors who want or need to maintain social distancing, the University of Montana Museum of Arts and Culture has created interactive, 360-degree "virtual docent tours" available on its website.

View of University of Montana from Mount Sentinel, in Missoula, Montana.
(TNS) — To get the most up-to-date tour of the University of Montana Museum of Arts and Culture, first make sure no one's there.

Adapting to the COVID pandemic has made that easy. A virtual 3D tour system can now deliver a visitor exclusive viewing time, complete with docents' notes and background source material. Friday, the new Goodbar collection of Western art will bring the Wild West into the digital arena.

Going live at the same time as the actual paintings and sculptures debut in UM's Meloy Gallery, "Imagining the West: Selections from the Stan and Donna Goodbar Collection of Western Art" allows those who want or need to social distance to still have a thorough exploration of the works.

When the reception doors open in the UM PAR/TV building at 5:30 p.m. Friday, the digital exhibit opens as well. Visitors don't need any special app to take a virtual tour. Simply clicking on any exhibit listed in the MMAC exhibits web page that has a "virtual docent tour" will take the viewer inside the gallery. The Goodbar tour should be live on Friday.

"You can walk around the pieces really well in the software," MMAC Curator Anna Strankman said. "They're pretty interactive."

On display is the Goodbars' personal gathering of paintings, illustrations and related works that defined the Wild West myths: Indians, cowboys, homes on the range, and many of the pulp-fiction magazines that carried those myths to the wider American audience.

The virtual tours use a 360-degree camera to capture the Meloy Gallery space from many different spots on the floor. From any chosen spot, the visitor will be close to some art and across the room from other pieces, and can spin around to look from any direction. A click of the mouse zooms closer to a chosen artwork, whether right nearby or on an opposite wall.

Each artwork also has tags listing the basic catalog information of artist, date and media, as well as interpretative notes about its significance. Some have "points to ponder" aimed at younger visitors that can launch conversations about the work.

Photographer and videographer Eileen Rafferty has built two previous tours for the MMAC. It takes her about 45 minutes of placing her special camera, leaving the room, triggering it by remote control and then repositioning for the next viewpoint to create the raw material for the tour.

Then the images get sent to software company Matterport for rendering and transformation to the finished presentation. The resulting show lets a visitor ghost through the empty gallery, able to drift up and down the walls and spin about like player in a live-action video game.

MMAC Director Raphael Chacón adapted the tour framework from a system in use at the Radius Art Gallery in downtown Missoula. The hosting company,, specializes in real estate tours but its capabilities work well for museums too.

"It's a new way of educating, but I think it's a viable way," Chacón said. "More and more people are comfortable with the online experience. When the pandemic hit, it quickly became apparent that virtual tours would be very attractive, with everyone locked at home."

Pre-pandemic, the Meloy Gallery was getting three or four docent-led tours a week. When much of the campus was locked down during the past two years, the virtual tours have been averaging 30 to 40 visits a week, Chacón said.

Chacón added that another of the few valuable outcomes of the COVID pandemic was a reckoning with the UM art program's digital outreach. Now the Montana Museum of Art and Culture has a virtual catalog of virtual tours, including the "Movement: Graphics and the Olympic Games, and Richard Buswell: Fifty Years of Photography."

"We realized we had minimal online presence when it came to education," Chacón said. "All our gallery materials were in print. We had no way of archiving exhibitions. Now the shows may be physically gone, but the virtual tour exists forever as long as there's cyberspace."

©2022 Missoulian, Mont. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.