3D scans – bringing History to a wider audience.

by James Lloyd – @jtlloyd3

James is a PhD student at the University of Reading/Exeter in Classics. His thesis is entitled: ”Music and Ritual in Ancient Sparta: the lead votive figurines of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia”

In recent years, there has been a flurry of new technologies emerging at a price which makes them (just about) affordable, notably 3D scanners and printers, and such technologies have attracted attention in the news of late for their employment in the digital recreation of artefacts and archaeological sites destroyed by IS. Indeed, 3D printing is a wonderful tool for bringing the past to life: Museum3D, for example, uses its 3D prints to engage museum visitors with low-vision and Alzheimer’s. However, as this post will show, 3D scans are just as important to public history.

3D scanning involves a machine blasting a series of light beams at an object to measure it three-dimensionally. These measurements are then used to create a 3D virtual model of the physical object. Thankfully, museums the world over have been pretty generous in making their scans available: for example, the Smithsonian hosts some online via AutoDesk, while the British Museum has a collection freely available for download from Sketchfab either to admire on a screen, or to print out. Links to these collections, as well as some other great examples, are listed below.

The digital sphere allows a level of interaction which moves beyond that of a casual visit to a museum. Sitting on your sofa, you can now view the finger-marks of an ancient potter on a Roman red-slip plate, rotate the plate, change the direction of lighting, and see the form of the object in a manner difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in 2D. In fact, even some museum display cases make it difficult to view an object as a 3D entity, with only one side being displayed. Furthermore, without extremely generous funding, it would be impossible to travel the globe viewing all objects of interest (the Roman plate mentioned above resides in Australia, for example).

Nonetheless, 3D scans and 3D-printed replicas can never replace their non-pixelated ancestors. The detail required for the academic study of objects often requires seeing and handling an artefact in person (and applying for travel grants). However, the average museum-goer probably doesn’t have the same level of unhealthy concern as a bookish PhD student. In this regard, 3D collections can complement museum visits. A case study published in 2013 showed that the use of a ‘virtual museum’ not only encouraged users to visit the museum, but had a positive impact “before, during, and after a visit”. As with any form of translation (for 3D scans translate from the physical to the digital), when we view 3D scans as both an educational tool and a tool for engagement, the intended audience is a key factor in driving the creative process.

Gamification as part of engagement and education is a sure-fire way to appeal to a broad spectrum of visitors. In fact, Sofia Romualo, a PhD student in Exeter is taking the principles of game design and applying them to the collections of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. She says: “Gameful design is now used regularly for commercial and marketing purposes, but the way it can benefit museums hasn’t yet been explored widely…There is growing recognition that building upon the elements which make engaging – having goals, challenges, a storyline and role play – can help bring the past to life…”

With this in mind, the potential for museums and educators to create gamified 3D environments is huge, and is something with which I am trying to engage myself at the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology. Using freeware such as Blender and Unity, we can create an end product from our 3D scans which will require the user to actively engage with them in order to progress and unlock more artefacts and features. As the availability of 3D technologies increases, gamification is the development which may prove most effective at bringing history to new audiences.

To find out more about the various ways that 3D technologies are being employed across the humanities, a colloquium is being held on 31 March 2016 at the University of Reading, funded by the British Academy. Speakers will include: Professor James E. Packer (Professor Emeritus, Northwestern University), author (with Gil Gorski) of a recent book on the digital reconstruction of the The Roman Forum; Tayfun Oner, creator of numerous digital reconstructions including Byzantium 1200; and the Altair4 studio, whose reconstruction work on Rome and other sites will be familiar to many. For further details see here, or to reserve a place or make enquiries, contact Elisabeth Meijer (e.h.meijer@pgr.reading.ac.uk).


‘Best of’:

Smithsonian       http://3d.si.edu/browser

Petrie Museum    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/3dpetriemuseum/3dobjects

British Museum   https://sketchfab.com/britishmuseum

Peabody                  https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/822

Museums on Sketchfab   https://sketchfab.com/museums

Models used for Feature Image:

Cycladic Figurine               https://sketchfab.com/models/b98bdab51e29482aa986c8bd564b40a9

Indian Throne Leg             https://sketchfab.com/models/9c51207c044b4bd0b1a7f88f42a78df2

Chinese Tombstone        https://sketchfab.com/models/a5a50ddc52ae4848b46a1436a4f686da

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