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Past meets future at Jerusalem's Tower of David

The Digital Innovation Lab at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem aims to use augmented reality to create an enhanced visitor’s experience.

Nearly two dozen Israeli technology companies set up shop among the 2,000-year-old stones of the Tower of David Museum, providing an extreme take on old meets new this week in Jerusalem.

The event was the launch of the Tower of David Innovation Lab, a groundbreaking collaboration between history and high tech at the Tower of David Museum, which for 30 years has anchored Jerusalem’s Old City and served as the official keeper of Jerusalem’s four millennia of history.

Located at the political, historical and religious epicenter of the country, the Tower of David Museum, housed within the walls of the Old City in the medieval citadel known as the Tower of David, tells the story of the history of Jerusalem. Two years ago, eager to refresh its image and attract a younger and more tech-savvy audience, the museum took a deep digital dive and adopted new technology, including augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) equipment, to refresh its 30-year-old exhibition and make itself more relevant to young, smartphone-addicted visitors. In 2016, the museum launched the nation’s first museum-sponsored hackathon, inviting companies to set up shop for a frenzied day of brainstorming and inspiration.

Riding on the success of those initiatives, museum staff have now decided to go one step further. Rather than simply adopt existing technology for use within the museum, they brought the tech companies into the fold and used the museum’s archaeologically rich campus as a laboratory for new innovation for the next 12 months — or longer if the pilot project is extended.

“When a visitor arrived at the museum in the past, they would get an audio guide and maybe look at some signs,” said Devora Mason, the manager of the Digital Innovation Lab, at an Oct. 17 gathering of journalists to mark the event’s kickoff. “But today we understand that a visitor wants much more than that … our lab is focused on being the one and only lab in Israel that is focusing on AR/VR technologies in an ancient historical site.”

The program is based on the concept of mutual benefit. Companies that have joined include iVisit Israel, which creates interactive 3-D and virtual reality tours, and Amuse app, which connects museum exhibits to cultural heritage sites. They get a free workspace and the invaluable opportunity to field test burgeoning technology of the museum’s 400,000 annual visitors, from different age groups and different parts of the world. The museum, in turn, can now enjoy its position at ground zero for new relevant technology that it can choose to incorporate into its storytelling capabilities, and the opportunity to upgrade its own exhibitions in the most cutting-edge way possible.

“This is a very critical moment for the Tower of David Museum,” said Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director and chief curator, at the same gathering. “The museum opened to the public 30 years ago as the museum of the history of Jerusalem … but now we want to renovate the exhibition. People have changed. The world has changed, and people can find a lot of information on their smartphones. It’s time to renew the story.”

Currently, there are 21 companies signed up for partnership with the Tower of David Innovation Lab, with many more having expressed an interest. All the participating companies offer technology that can be applied to the field of cultural and educational tourism.

This means that when a visitor steps onto the Tower of David’s campus and looks at the stone remains of what was once the entrance to King Herod’s Palace, they will be able, with the help of augmented reality, to see the marble staircases and grand columns that long ago were swallowed by history. Rather than just read a description of the stunning saltwater pools that formed above the ruins of drainage pipes and cisterns that remain today, they will actually be able to see — and maybe even smell and hear — those marvels as well. History, the museum says, will come alive.

While the museum is obviously eager for the new lab to spearhead technology that will offer them a competitive edge in an increasingly crowded playing field of tourism and history, staffers also say that they believe the collaboration they are encouraging will set a precedent for more partnerships between museums and startups around the world.

“The eyes of the world are on Jerusalem, and the Tower of David is the history of Jerusalem,” Lieber said. “We are a template for an international solution for creating an enhanced visitor experience.”

Mason agrees and notes that the Tower of David Innovation Lab will help make Jerusalem’s long and storied history newly relevant to young visitors.

“We always say, ‘If these stones could only speak,’” she said. “And with technology, they can.”

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