An app that helps users delve through thousands of years of local history is being trialled at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Users can excavate through layers of material from different time periods, digitally digging back through the archaeology of the Cambridge region, as one might excavate the accumulated layers on an archaeological site

Chris Wingfield

The app is designed to provide more information on the fascinating ‘Cambridge Wall’ of local artefacts – a display of nearly 160 objects within three superimposed layers representing the Prehistoric, Roman and Medieval periods – overlaid on a map of the area, showing where they were discovered.

The Cambridge Wall display is part of a new gallery on the archaeology of Cambridge created when the museum – a finalist for the prestigious Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2013 – reopened after extensive redevelopment in May 2012. The innovative three-dimensional display generates substantial interest among museum visitors, whose feedback has highlighted the desire for more information about particular artefacts.

Click on image to view video of app

With support from the Arts Council England, the Museum has launched the first phase of an iPad app that replicates the Cambridge Wall. At a tap of the screen, users can delve more deeply into the display to discover information on the uses of each artefact, where it was found and the date that it was added to the collection. Visitors can contribute to the development of the app by trialling it on an iPad borrowed from the Museum’s Information Desk. Their use of the app will be recorded, and will shape the next stage of the app’s development – in time, the plan is to let people download the app onto their own devices.

Dr Chris Wingfield, Senior Curator (Archaeology) at the Museum, said: “This app allows our visitors to become the archaeologists, looking at where things from different periods have been found, and thinking about how their location relates to other features, such as the River Cam, or the Roman Road which still forms the backbone of Cambridge’s road system. Users can excavate through layers of material from different time periods, digitally digging back through the archaeology of the Cambridge region, as one might excavate the accumulated layers on an archaeological site.”

Details revealed by the Cambridge Wall app include an ancient necklace made from fossilised sponges, found in Chesterton, and a beautiful glass jar, found in Petty Cury.

Starting from a complete representation of the cabinet, the app enables visitors to add or remove layers showing material from the Medieval, Roman and Prehistoric period, as well as a contemporary street plan of Cambridge. Users can interact with the app by pinching and tapping the screen to zoom and select objects to display further information.

“The intention is to lead the visitor on a short journey from the real world in the museum to the virtual world of the app,” said Billy Gibson of Atlas Live, developers of the app.  Atlas Live believe the application can easily be configured for a wide range of gallery displays, pairing the ancient and the cutting-edge.

The app was commissioned in collaboration with Caper as part of Culture Hack East, a digital development programme for arts and culture that enables the creation of innovative digital prototypes and creates new working relationships across the arts, technology and the creative industries.

It has been developed as part of a wider project exploring the use of apps at the University’s museums. University of Cambridge Museums Officer, Dr Liz Hide, said: “This project addresses two of the key priorities of the University of Cambridge Museums Connecting Collections programme, funded by the Arts Council England’s Major Partner Museum programme: to bring the museums, their collections and their research to new and more diverse audiences, and to develop digital capacity across the eight museums. This is one of a number of apps and other digital innovations planned during the coming two years.”


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