It took six years and $50 million, but last month the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem finally opened its renovated doors to an immersive experience that uses cutting edge technology to bring to life thousands of years of history.
The museum – a distinctive feature of the Jerusalem skyline that welcomes visitors to the Old City through the adjacent Jaffa Gate – is actually a citadel first built more than a millennium ago atop the remains of human civilization dating back 2,500 years.
The museum weaves through the ancient stone fortress, with exhibits placed in multiple spaces and on multiple levels, where a combination of animation, touch screens and audiovisual media is designed to bring you as immersive an experience as possible.
Yoav Cohen, the museum’s creative director of media content, tells NoCamels that the biggest task his team faced was deciding how to digitally interpret the historical material with which they were presented.
“We had a lot of documents,” Cohen says. “Now you need to take these documents and ask yourself how you make them into stories or a movie and if it’s going to be an animated movie [or] it’s going to be interactive screens.”
A first step into the renovated site immediately brings you to a video screened on and incorporating an ancient wall of the citadel. This five-minute animation both provides a potted history of the city and acts as a harbinger of the technological spectacle ahead.
The short film was created by Israeli director Ari Folman, whose 2008 animated feature Waltz with Bashir won him international acclaim and a Golden Globe. It incorporates multiple eras of the city with the original brickwork, culminating in modern day, when the bricks are transformed into a representation of the famed Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.
“We asked ourselves who we wanted to have in that entrance,” Cohen says.
“We knew that [Folman] will give us this creativity and we wanted to use this video-mapping that will reflect the wall of bricks. And the wall of bricks is something that is very important for us because it’s telling the story of Jerusalem and the story of the material of the wall.”
Moving into the museum, visitors encounter a 3D map, which was laser cut from Hebron stone to include every topographic feature of Jerusalem. The actual contours of the city itself through the ages are cast onto the carved map, showing how it has grown through the centuries.
“We used a NASA picture from a satellite in black and white,” Cohen says of how the map was constructed. They then opened that satellite picture in 3D software and created a 3D model, even tinkering with it to make it more accurate to how it was 2,000 years ago, when “the river was deeper and the mountain was higher.”
Once they were happy with the 3D model of the map, it was cut from the stone.
Beside the map sits a globe detailing the distance from every spot on the planet to Jerusalem. Touching any point on the globe will immediately give you the distance from there to Jerusalem, cementing the concept that the ancient city is at the center of the world.
One step further and visitors encounter 12 touch screens joined together, allowing you to explore multiple time periods of the city, its people, events and culture in a feature called “Sands of Time.” Each screen is operated by a separate computer.
The user interface (UI) for the touch screens involved careful planning, Cohen explains. They took into account the personal space needed for each user and differing heights of visitors (the whole museum is designed with accessibility in mind, and the renovation even included the construction of two new elevators).
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Cohen says all the display screens in the museum share the same user interface, making it easier for visitors to navigate through the citadel.
“The languages will always be shown in the same place and will have the same font, so slowly the user will get familiar with that and will find it more easy.”
The mass of cables and electronics needed to run the innovative experience are artfully hidden beneath a raised floor and behind bricks and mortar seamlessly blended into the ancient walls. This preserves the authenticity of the experience inside the citadel, according to museum guide Shira Sadot.
And the computers that actually keep the whole exhibition alive “are 200 meters from here,” according to Cohen.
One of the biggest challenges, Cohen says, was the room where images of the city are projected onto the ceiling accompanied by music, creating a seven-minute dynamic mosaic of the religious life of the communities that make up modern Jerusalem. Spectators are invited to lie down on benches to fully appreciate the experience, which was created with input from local residents of all faiths.
The mosaic was put together by renowned Israeli illustrator David Polonsky, who also worked as art director on Waltz with Bashir. Cohen says that from a technical and artistic perspective, this feature was very complicated to construct.
“We didn’t ask [Polonsky] to make an illustration, we asked him to make a montage – to take all of the different pieces from thousands of photos in the city and to cut it to make it one big 360-degree [experience],” he explains.
“It was very hard to make one room where everything combined together, and we were so happy that we could do it.”
While many of the exhibits are new, some build upon features of the old museum – with an innovative twist. Among them is the revamped depiction of the Arch of Titus, a 1st century relief made by the Romans to celebrate their conquest and sacking of Jerusalem in 70CE in response to the Jewish rebellion against their rule.
The original is located in Rome and the replica formerly on display in the Tower of David has been updated to show not only the piece but also how it would have looked when it was created with colors.
To achieve this as accurately as possible, museum guide Shira Sadot said, the team even went to Rome to scan the original.
Cohen says the digital content is ultimately there to facilitate the experience of Jerusalem through the ages.
“It should feel authentic, and it should feel interesting, but it shouldn’t feel dusty,” he says. “We wanted to have a new way to get information, something that will be exciting and [display] this antique information and historical information.”