Virtual Reality Simulation

The Interactive Diorama of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is a virtual reality simulation of the original artwork by Rembrandt realized by professor Lily Díaz-Kommonen with the Department of Media Systems of Representation research group at Aalto University. The seven doctors present at the original sitting have been re-created as 3D avatar placeholders displaying gestures, motion, and speech. The setting of the lesson that reputedly took place at the meeting room of the Amsterdam’s Barber’s Surgeon Guild at Waag Society has been rendered at the 1691 Anatomical Theatre (also at Waag), through the study of 18th century images and using photogrammetry techniques.

The work celebrates and deconstructs this important moment when the history of art and science converges in spectacle. It compares the representation-based pictorial space of the canvas with the dynamic, embodied, and relational space of virtual reality environments.

Rembrandt’s mastery rendered a moment in space and time pregnant with narratives. As an interactive diorama The Anatomy Lesson is an artefact of expression that gathers within itself myriad possible discourses and stories. As an expressive artefact the diorama can also conjure multiple realities for the spectator. But what lurks behind? In deconstructing and reinterpreting the work once again in the 21st century, art assumes the role of interface allowing for speculative and agonistic experimentation and thinking. The established order can be subverted as the visitor enters the virtual space by assuming the role of the deceased inmate.

Created in 2010 as a merger of three institutions, Helsinki School of Economics (HSE), Helsinki Institute of Technology (HUT) and University of Art and Design Helsinki (UIAH), Aalto University is a multidisciplinary community where art, science and business come together to identify grand societal challenges and build innovative futures. The work has been created at the Media Lab, Department of Media.

European dimension

Innovation in society through digital culture and heritage is a cornerstone of the work. The project is situated within an innovative communications-oriented paradigm that promotes participation in interactive designed museum experiences. These experiences can be regarded as active journeys through time and space that can enable reflection about topics such as self, identity, and the essence of human existence. A VR simulation such as the Interactive Diorama – Rembrandt’s 1632 for example substitutes the natural perception field to envelop the visitor in another artificially crafted reality that allows for manipulation of objects which cannot be accessed directly. Aside of enabling passage to inaccessible environments, the simulation potentially unleashes a wide spectrum of affective and cognitive experiences: Through its ability to evoke a different experience of heritage that no longer exists for example, it enables non-linear, associative ways of thinking and dialogical interpretations to emerge.

National Geographic lists eight European museums among the top ten in the world and commanding thirty-two million yearly visitors. Anticipating ambient and ubiquitous computing trends our research seeks to better understand the relationship between the virtual and the physical and to develop better practices for the use of media artifacts in traditional exhibitions and in the museums of the future. The work operates as a ‘contact zone’ or space of heterogeneous engagement, a site where diverse frameworks of knowledge and culture effervesce. The physical installation affords a space that frames the interaction as a new intellectual, emotional experience, albeit one akin to reading.


Lily Diaz-Komonen – research article, Interactive diorama
Ling Chen – MA thesis, Interactive Diorama: A Case Study on Virtual Reality Applied to Cultural Heritage