Cultural Leadership: Case studies

Going viral: Museums and 3D (Part 2)

In the second part of her piece, Tonya Nelson goes on to describe the additional advantages of the use of 3D exhibitions in musuems and galleries, and how work environments can give way to viral capacity building.


iCurator at work

iCurator at work

(As continued from Part I)


While 3D exhibitions support greater distribution of collections material, it became clear during the project that 3D models could be used for deeper audience engagement.  In support of this concept, the Petrie received a grant from the MLA to develop an online exhibition design tool called iCurator. The proposed tool would allow visitors to create displays in an online virtual space by selecting from a library of 3D images of objects in the Petrie Museum collection and series of different display cases.

Because hiring an external commercial company would limit our understanding of the programming code as we grow, a developer was recruited to be on the Petrie staff temporarily to create the application. This was a game changer for the Museum’s capacity to innovate. This developer brought technological development to the core of the organization and essentially upskilled the entire staff.

Rapid 3D Content Generation 1: Blender

As the team watched iCurator being developed over an 8 month period, its uses and other derivative outputs began to proliferate. For example, when looking for alternative ways to test redisplay ideas before handling the pots, the iCurator developer did some research and found a free application called Blender which allows you to create 3D representations of objects. The developer taught staff members how to use Blender and an intern spent about 2 weeks making the digital models of pots and working with our curator to design the new display.

Re-displayed pottery case using Blender

Rapid 3D Content Generation 2: PhotoFly

The iCurator developer also began to research applications that could create 3D models using photographs. In addition to Blender, he discovered a free application called Photofly. All one needs to do is take photos from at least 10 different locations around the object (using a standard camera or smart phone) and upload the photos into the Photofly system.  The application automatically stitches the images together to create the 3D model.

Tour of the Nile Augment Reality Application

We wanted to give visitors a sense of the geographic location from which the objects in the collection come, going beyond a spot identified on a map. So we decided to use augmented reality to “release” objects from their display cases and re-connect them to their find place in Egypt.  The application, called Tour of the Nile allows visitors to travel the Nile via a large floor map that contains markers that trigger 3D models of objects to appear on an iPad or iPhone camera which pass over them.  When the model appears on the screen, the user can use touch technology to rotate the object or press a button that provide more details about the object and its excavation site.

The Organisational Conditions Necessary for Viral Capacity Building

The 3D bug continues to infect the Petrie as the staff endeavors to use motion sensing technology to allow visitors to control the movement of 3D objects through gesture recognition.  The stream of ideas emanating from the Petrie team is endless. But what may be more important than a review of all the potential applications of 3D technology is insight into what organizational conditions existed at the Petrie to make rapid 3D innovation possible.  What was the cause of the virus?

1. Infecting the organization with new expertise. Research on organizational culture and innovation indicates that “the frequency of communication among persons with dissimilar frames of reference” is key to innovation because the “exchange of ideas from different points of view generate new, creative ideas.”[1] Hiring a developer onto the Petrie staff not only led to creation of iCurator, it added to the team someone with a non-museum, technical frame of reference. The high frequency of communication and discussion between him and the museum staff resulted in a proliferation of innovative ideas for 3D content development that I do not think would have been discovered if he had been working externally.


2. Creating an environment that favours growth. Research also indicates that innovation increases to  “the extent that employees believe that they are being supported by the allocation of time, funding, equipment, materials, and services necessary to function creatively and to implement new ideas, projects and solutions.”[2] In terms of equipment, the Petrie had a commercial partner that loaned extremely expensive laser scanning equipment and associated software to the Museum on a long-term basis and allowed museum staff to be trained on how to use it.  The idea to use 3D models for comparative research came from the conservator responsible for scanning who saw the potential of the scanning software to perform such a function and spent time working with the software to test his idea.  If he had had limited access to the equipment and constraints on the time he could spend familiarizing himself with the scanning software, the idea may have not been discovered.

Another factor that creates a favorable environment for growth is organizational mission.  NESTA research points out that one of the factors that most facilitates innovation in an organization is when it “strives to acquire a reputation for innovation.”[3] Despite the 19th century look of the Petrie Museum, it has been a leader in the use of digital technologies for increasing accessibility.  It was the first to put its entire collection of 80,000 objects online in a photographic catalogue and continues to pursue digital engagement.  What helps is that it is part of a research university that is respected for its scholarship is digital technology.  This gives the Petrie team an incentive to be innovative in 3D technologies.



3. Being indiscriminate in selecting victims. NESTA research also indicates that “[i]nnovation is easier to achieve in smaller organisations which are often less prone to hierarchical structures.”  According to this research, flatter organizations tend to be more participative than ones that are bureaucratic or have a command and control culture. NESTA also recommends that innovation should not be “restricted to a ‘subset’ of people with certain characteristics” because “self efficacy for innovative working (a belief and confidence in one’s ability to innovate) is a major determinant for innovation behavior.”[4] The Petrie has a small team that operates using an almost completely flat organizational structure.  Because the staff members are, by default, heads of their departments, strategic and operational elements to their roles and have the autonomy to decide how they deliver on their duties and responsibilities.  Thus, they have the space to innovate.  Furthermore, there is no one in organization who does not have exposure to and access to digital technologies being development in the museum.  New 3D projects are discussed at full team meetings and all team members are invited to provide input in to development and to suggest ways in which project can be incorporated into their workplans.



The experience of the Petrie Museum supports an argument that new investment in digital innovation should be targeted towards internal capacity building if the objective is to promote sustained innovation in the sector.