Ceramics in Context

A hands-on exploration of the MFA's tea wares.

Demo video from May, 2020.

Ceramics in context is a virtual reality experience which allows users to interact with objects from the Museum of Fine Art's collection of objects used in the Japanese tea ceremony in the context of a traditional chashitsu.

With this project, I was interested in the limits of how museums can display objects, and how VR can be used to move beyond those limits in a way that conceptually makes sense with the subject, rather than as a technological boondoggle. Priceless and irreplaceable tea objects are traditionally viewed, not through glass, but through use which involves directly handling the object, an experience which a museum cannot give its visitors. The context of a tea ceremony is also an essential component. Chashitsu are special rooms or sometimes entire buildings dedicated exclusively to tea ceremonies-- a spatial commitment which would be difficult for a museum to make to a small number of objects.

Finally, an essiential conceptual aspect of the tea ceremony is that it is a celebration of a specific meeting, at a specific time, between a guest and a host, which cannot ever be repeated. The art of selecting a set of objects for use in a particular tea ceremony, called toriwase, is an expression of understanding of the guest by the host, and would never be the same for two different sets of guests. This is impossible to replicate for a museum, which must provide one curation for all guests. Ceramics in Context attempts to resolve this difficulty by allowing visitors who engage with all of the gaze targets in the standard curation of the experience to be brought to a different room, with a wider variety of objects in the MFA's collection, to curate the experience for the next guest. This room, which is visible in the last third of the demo video, helps guide the visitor in this task by identifying what types of objects are necessary to perform the tea ceremony, and requiring them to select one of each type of item.

This project also explores how to unobtrusively include a VR experience in a museum context. VR in a museum can be a resouce intensive process, which requires a constant attendant to monitor it. In the absence of this attendant, a visitor who cannot see the real world may run into something and hurt themselves or a nearby artifact. Ceramics in Context is envisioned as using a HMD which is tethered low to the ground, next to a cushion which indicates to a viewer where to place their knees, causing them to kneel. This change in position both makes sense with the material, because it is traditional to kneel in a chashitsu, and keeps the visitor and the museum safe from one another, because they are less likely to move and run into nearby objects.

This project was created as part of 4.570- Design Experience Workshop 2020: Augmented, Immersive and Mobile Kyoto for Boston MFA, a class at MIT taught by Takehiko Nagakura. This project owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the staff of the MFA who worked with this class. Objects featured in this project are all from the 2012 MFA exhibit "An Unspoken Dialogue with Tea", some of which are from the MFA, and some of which are borrowed from private collections. Further information on them can be found below.