Prototyping Chinese Handscroll Interactive Experiences

This interactive learning project was originally initiated by the Columbia University Media Center and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. It was centered around the two series of monumental handscrolls illustrating the Southern Inspection Tours of the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors of the Qing dynasty. Each original set has twelve long handscrolls which were dispersed among the major museum collections in Beijing, New York and Paris sometime before 1949. Both of them are immense in scale—the Kangxi set measures over 213 meters (700 feet) in total length, the Qianlong set, over 143 meters (470 feet).

Design Challenge

Chinese handscroll paintings are physically long objects viewed from right to left, unrolling a bit at a time from the roller. About one arm’s length at a time is the proper amount to be exposed for viewing. In museums, we often find enthusiastic spectators crowded in the front of custom-made glass trying to get a view of the masterpiece from various angles. On the Web, an important handscroll painting is typically divided into several images that fragment the visual narrative and distort the character of the objects. Because of the discrepancy between the format and the interface, “seeing the forest and the trees” at the same time, as the problem was articulated in Chinese, has become a critical issue for displaying Chinese monumental handscrolls properly on the web or through mobile devices. In an ever-changing world of digital technology, the challenge for this project was not merely about designing a screen to display the entire scroll all at once or to be able to see an image in sharp detail, but how to recreate the meaningful experience of a “private viewing” and provide general audiences a visual guide through a complex artwork without overloading the brain’s limited cognitive resources.

To explore the traditional art medium as a narrative device and demonstrate its potential for comprehending a visual communication process across the timeline, I designed a web prototype with a better navigation system for both teaching and learning purposes. In the interim, I have been working on a mobile device version to further enhance the user learning experience.


Reference Link

Interactive Scroll Viewer
Interactive Urban Mapper for 18th-Century Suzhou
Comparing the Kangxi and Qianlong Southern Inspection Tour Scrolls

Selected Presentations and Publications

  • Mapping the Invisible: A Meaningful Viewing Experience in Chinese Handscroll Maps, Gordon Research Conference in Visualization, Oxford University, July 29, 2009
  • Become Encapsulated! Designing a Pedagogical Space in the Cultural Context of Asia, ICHIM05, Digital Culture and Heritage, Paris, September 23, 2005

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