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Page last updated at 17:14 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 18:14 UK

Hi-tech future for ancient Roman town

A look around Italy's museum where hi-tech has replaced the exhibits

Technology is often employed to bring exhibitions to life, but as David Reid found out, one museum has gone one step further by using it to replace all its displays.

The Virtual Museum of Archaeology (or MAV), which opened this summer, is based on the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum and is sited 100 metres from the ruins of the former settlement.

The creators of MAV aim to digitally reconstruct the destroyed town and recreate what life there was like.

Animation of old Herculaneum
MAV museum used modern tech to Herculaneum to life

The town was destroyed in 79 AD when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius encased it in scalding ash, killing those trying to flee, and preserving under 25m of debris some of the finest examples of private Roman villas.

"It is incredible coming to Herculaneum in the dark because your imagination fills in the gaps. Now a local museum is using digital technology to do just that," said Walter Ferrara, the MAV's head curator.

Although MAV is near the actual site of Herculaneum it attempts to show it how it was not how it is now.

"You can see only stones and some buildings," said Mr Ferrara. "You cannot see them how they were… these reconstructions you can see here are immersive and have a lot of appeal."

The Romans are a well-suited subject for a digital museum, as they were great proponents of the pixel, and were technologically ambitious.

Walter Ferrara, the head curator at MAV
The museum's head curator says its animations have much appeal

However, the developers have been careful not to let the museum's message become too eclipsed by 21st century technology.

Gaetano Capasso, concept developer for MAV, says: "Technology has to prompt curiosity, but remain discrete."

The MAV is unique among archaeological museums in exhibiting no ancient artefacts such as Roman busts or original murals.

There are also no alarms, no security guards and no signs saying "Do Not Touch". But it prides itself in being unapologetically educational.

While Vesuvius has gone back to sleep, the main threat to Herculaneum now that much of it has been excavated, could be from visitors plodding around the ruins.

Museum visitor
A museum visitor tries one of the museum's many interactive screens

If these visitors can be persuaded to go to the virtual museum rather than trek around around the ruins then it might go some way towards preserving those crumbling stones.

"This is also the best way to make these towns live in the future, because otherwise I think they will be destroyed again and not by Vesuvius, but by people," says archaeologist Caterina Cozzalino.

With a shrinking government budget to protect a rich cultural heritage, this virtual museum could become a model to preserve Italy's fragile archaeological sites in the future.

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