tory of the Gebelein Man unfolds for
the visitor in the same way researchers
have used visualization to establish the
cause of death; the Gebelein Man was
murdered, with a metal blade the most
The technology allowing visitors to
the British Museum to explore the Gebelein Man is an image-generation technique called “volume rendering” that is
efficiently executed on graphics processing units (GPUs). A stack of thousands
of 2D images, as generated by modern
computed tomography (CT) X-ray scanners, is processed in parallel to interactively create images. During the past
decade, various museums have begun to
scan human remains and artifacts from
their collections. Not only are mummies
scanned, so too are meteorites, bee flies,
gecko lizards embedded in amber, and
much more in 3D; see a 2013 report
from the Smithsonian Institution.
This article describes the underlying research and development of algorithms and technologies that have become the basis for a software solution
for multi-touch tables. It also describes
how the workflow of scanning, curating, and integrating the data into the
overall creation of stories for the public can lead to engaging installations
at museums around the world. Our
work is an example of how computing
technologies, especially in computer
graphics and visualization, allow a
general audience to interact with and
explore the very same data that only
scientists and domain experts have
previously been able to study. Figure 2
shows children exploring the Neswaiu
mummy at the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm.
The first commercial CT machinery
was invented by Sir Godfrey Hounsfield
(who was co-winner of the 1979 Nobel
Prize for Physiology or Medicine) and
made public in 1972. A tomography
image of 80×
80 pixels initially took 2. 5
hours to compute, image-acquisition
time not included. Fast-forwarding
through four decades of development
of detector materials, computer hardware, and image-reconstruction algorithms, a modern CT scanner can scan
an entire body in fewer than five seconds, generating up to 10,000 slices,
with down-to-0.3mm slice thickness.
Figure 1. The Gebelein Man (identified as human mummy EA 32751) is a pre-dynastic
natural mummy and thus not prepared for artificial mummification, as later tradition
directed. After being on display at the British Museum for more than 100 years, it was
carefully transported to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital, London, U.K., for CT scanning.
Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 2. Visitors to the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm can explore and virtually
touch the coffins, wrapping, and body of the Neswaiu mummy, an Egyptian priest from
Thebes, circa 300 B.C. This realistic tangible interaction is made possible through the
integration of a range of technical developments, including high-resolution CT X-ray scans,
laser scanning, photogrammetry, and modern GPUs.
Photo courtesy of Ove Kaneberg/Medelhavsmuseet.