A virtual dive in the Museum of Ancient Shipping

04. June 2019

With the Mixed Reality Open Lab, the Museum of Ancient Shipping in Mainz is breaking new ground. Barbara Weber-Dellacroce on bringing Roman shipbuilding to life digitally.

mainz schiff

The Museum of Ancient Shipping in Mainz is a very special museum. Not only is the museum the home of the spectacular Mainz Roman ships, but the light, bright exhibition hall also displays reconstructed Roman ships which were made in the museum's own workshops, some of them on a scale of 1:1. This museum does more than just show the artistry of Roman shipbuilders, it gives you an up close and very impressive exerpience of that artistry.

For several months now the museum, which is one of the sites of the Roman-Germanic Central Museum (RGZM), has been expanding the depth of this experience using the exciting and promising possibilities offered by digital technologies. Recently I had the opportunity to test the so-called "Mixed Reality Open Lab". The aim of this test area is to use different digital and analogue media to give visitors a multi-layered way of understanding the shipwreck of La Madrague de Giens, which was found off the French Mediterranean coast. And, very importantly, it allows you to evaluate the use and knowledge gained.

The setting

The Mixed Reality Open Lab is grouped around the model of the ship of La Madrague, a wooden reconstruction on a scale of 1:10.

The following presentation methods were chosen:

  1. A VR station gives an impression of the findings under water.
  2. An MR station on the model ship uses AR elements to tell about the life cycle of the ship, from the shipowner's investment decision to its sinking off the coast and the attempt at an ancient salvage operation.
  3. Analogue stations convey in-depth content through text panels, tactile reliefs and hands-on stations.
  4. An NFC-based multimedia guide system provides further information and image material.
  5. A tactile floor guidance system from the entrance area through the Open Lab, a tactile plan of the Open Lab, tactile reliefs at the stations, texts in Braille as well as audio descriptions in the NFC multimedia guide also enable access for the visually impaired and blind.

The floor guidance system and room plan is also appreciated by vistiors who are not visually impaired, helping to give them a full and fulfilling museum experience.

VR station

The VR station is marked by a floor covering which shows the conditions in the Mediterranean where the boat was found. The users receive VR glasses (which are easy to wear over normal glasses!) and two controllers. After a short briefing the station is easy to operate. You can move freely; if you run the risk of leaving the VR area, a red grid lights up. Using the buttons of the controller you can then jump to the next area.

I was skeptical about this VR application. But here the concept works well. The aim is to show the visitors how the shipwreck and its cargo were found under water. The visitors move through the wreck, in the background you hear the sound of water, fish swim by. It is almost like diving! With the controllers you can lift some objects, e.g. amphorae. At particularly interesting points field books are stored, which show sketches and give very brief information. In some places, lifting a field book triggers a grid-like reconstruction of e.g. the deck superstructure or the bilge pump in the hull.

By the way, a large screen allows other visitors to see what is being discovered "under water". This shortens the waiting time, especially for groups visiting the Open Lab.

The users thus receive information on the situation under water and information directly linked to the wreck. And an immersive impression of the picture that underwater archaeologists get.

The VR station conveys the situation at the find better than any picture of film ever can.

Of course, the knowledge you can get from this kind of rather atmospheric VR station is not very much. That is why, after the VR-experience, there is an additional table where you can go on a discovery tour with the NFC-Guide . Visually, these two stations are so closely linked that it is very easy to find your way around. There is a photo of the wreck printed on the table. The NFC points are of course tactile and are additionally marked with the sketches that you have already seen on the field books in the VR application.

Analogue, barrier-free stations

In addition to the wooden model on a scale of 1:10, eight information stations have been set up where you can read, touch or listen to station texts.

Touch reliefs not only offer access for the visually impaired and blind, they make it easier for everyone to understand things like when construction details or special ship nodes are involved. The tactile reliefs are beautiful and work perfectly, as always when Tactile Studio is on board. These stations are inclusive in the best sense, because they are stations for everyone, everyone will find something they want there, especially in combination with the NFC media guide that tuomi was able to contribute to this project.

Unfortunately, I was not able to test the MR station on the model ship when I was there in mid-May 2019, as it was still in the implementation phase. But everything that they were able to show me there looked very promising. When everything is done it is sure to be an entertaining and educational experience that tells the visitors the story of these fascinating ships.


The Mixed Reality Open Lab, which was explicitly installed as a test setup, shows how through a well thought-out concept, VR and MR can complement the classic mediation tools, which can also include media guides, in a really meaningful way. They can help to create a multi-layered picture and give visitors an immersive experience in the museum that lets them discover things in a playful way.

Of course it must be kept in mind that there is a high level of personnel support provided by the Open Lab. The visitors are always accompanied and helped in order to make the user experience as positive as possible, to avoid the risk of accidents and to support the visitors, even if, for example, someone cannot cope physically or mentally with the VR experience.

We are very excited about the evaluation of the user data and the user survey and what conclusion the museum will come to: Does the use of VR and MR create so much added value that it justifies the high costs of development, updating, maintenance and support? We will see. In any case, we can really recommend visiting the museum, it's fun and you come away with a lot of new knowledge.

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