Booth’s Deringer: Up Close with an Assassin’s Gun

The deringer pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln is one of the most memorable artifacts in the Ford’s Theatre Museum. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination in spring 2015, the pistol was moved from its usual location to become a cornerstone of the Silent Witnesses exhibition in the Center for Education and Leadership, which highlighted artifacts present during the assassination. To fill the void left in the museum while the deringer was on display across the street, a new interactive was created that allowed visitors a unique way to interact with the deringer.

John Wilkes Booth's deringer pistol. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Now that the deringer is back in its permanent location, both the artifact itself and the interactive display are present, creating a new way to experience this special artifact. Using a touch screen monitor, a 3D virtual model of the gun can be spun and enlarged, allowing visitors to engage with the artifact like never before.

The 3D model of the deringer was created by Troy King, a graphic designer working with Split Rock Studios, who designed and constructed the interactive. Because the deringer was too fragile to send to King, he and his coworkers had to get creative in order to produce a three-dimensional, 360 degree, digital replication. We asked King some questions about the interactive and how he created the final design:

Ford’s Theatre: What challenges did you face creating the creation of the 3-D image? How did you address these challenges?

Troy King: Making a 3D scan of the deringer would have been a lot less work, but the actual 3D modeling was done by a very talented artist in Poland named Artur Grzegorczyn. He used a variety of tools including a digital sculpting application called ZBrush. He made the model “by hand”, by referencing high-resolution photos and documented dimensions of the derringer.

Close view of the engraving on Booth's deringer. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

FT:  How did this project differ from other interactives you’ve created?

TK: This is the first interactive museum exhibit I’ve done. I’ve been working primarily with 3D modeling and animation for corporate and military technology videos. I used an application called “Unity Pro”, which is primarily a “game engine,” to create the presentation. There are standard code libraries that can provide a gesture recognition interface between the touch screen and the software, but I wanted the interaction to have a very specific “feel”, so I created the code myself. I also wanted it to be very simple and intuitive. Programming the gestures from scratch allowed me to get exactly the result I wanted.

FT: When visitors interact with the deringer, what element do you think deserves the most attention?

TK: An interactive display allows visitors to virtually handle an artifact. They can look at it from any angle and zoom in to see it up close in a way that they can’t when looking at it through the glass of a display case. Of course it’s great to also have the real thing on-hand!

FT: What role do you envision interactives having in museum displays – especially those where the actual item is also housed within the exhibition?

 

TK: Creating a good model is one thing, but creating one that closely matches a real-world artifact like the derringer is much more demanding, and Artur did an excellent job of it. Once the digital model was created, a texture map was made from those same images and precisely aligned to the surfaces of the model. This is the same process by which models are made for movie special effects and computer games.

Kelsey S. Johnston is a Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communications Intern and graduate student at the George Washington University, where she is pursuing her Master’s degree in Museum Studies. She is passionate about the use of new media and digital technology within museums as a means to educate and communicate with visitors, both in person and online. Originally from Pennsylvania, and a GW alumna, Johnston is a Lincoln enthusiast and also an avid runner.