Cultural Leadership: Case studies

Going viral: Museums and 3D (Part 1)

In a two part feature, Tonya Nelson defines and expands on the the idea of ‘viral capacity building’ – the acquisition of knowledge and expertise through person-to-person transfer - in light of the use of 3D technologies in museums and galleries.

3D digital replica of a scarab from the Petrie collection

The imperative to use digital technologies to engage the public and improve back office operations is higher than ever.  Recognizing this, major UK cultural funding agencies such as NESTA, Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council have, or soon will be, launching major funding calls for new digital projects. I welcome this support, but wonder what the best model for deploying this funding is if we seek to sustain innovation in the sector. In its recent funding call, NESTA asked cultural organizations to partner with commercial sector technology companies to develop digital projects over 1 year period for an amount between £50,000 –£100,000.  While I believe working with commercial companies will result in more innovative and sophisticated outputs, I wonder whether the cultural organizations involved will have any greater capacity to deliver technology projects in the future. If development is, in effect, outsourced, will they be able to adapt outputs to new needs or create derivative projects in the future? I argue that funding models must seek to embed digital development capacity within museums. This can be done by placing technology expertise within the organization and letting that knowledge permeate through the organization, hence the concept of ‘viral capacity-building.’

I derived the concept of viral capacity building from my work at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London in connection with use of 3D technology. For a museum that has only 6 full-time employees and a budget under £500,000 per year, the rapidity in which it has built 3D capabilities and used them to develop digital applications is worth exploring. The following discussion will chart the evolution of the 3D “virus” at the Petrie Museum between April 2010 and December 2011 and then discuss what I believe where the organizational conditions necessary for this virus to take hold.

3D Scanning Project

As a university museum, the Petrie Museum is in the unique position to work with academics and commercial companies engaged in cutting-edge research.  Several years ago, the Museum began a research partnership with UCL’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering and Arius, a manufacturer of 3D laser scanners. The objective was to create 3D digital replicas of objects in the collection. Due to the fragile nature of the collection, it was thought best to perform 3D scanning work in the museum and to hire and train museum professionals (a conservator and curator) to carry out many of the activities related to selecting and imaging museum objects.  While practical reasons drove the decision to base the project within the Petrie, I contend that the main benefit of having development work happening in the museum is that it gave the Museum the 3D “bug.”  Once the potential of 3D technology was seen by the Petrie staff, its uses for collections-based research and public engagement multiplied like a virus through the body of the organization.

3D Exhibitions

Once the museum had produced its first 3D digital replicas, the question was: How can these assets be used?  The first idea: exhibitions. Access to the Petrie collection for loans is quite limited given the fragility of its artefacts and the staff’s limited capacity to administer a large number of loans.

The first opportunity to test the exhibition idea came about when the British Library asked if we could contribute a display to their Growing Knowledge exhibition ( last year.  In response, the Museum developed Crossing Over, a computer-based exhibition included an ancient foot case, face covering and a label all of which could be seen in stereo using 3D glasses. The beauty of the exhibition was that as viewers read text about the object, the application moved the object to focus in on the aspect of the object most relevant to the discussion, making close object inspection easier and more educational.

Screenshots of the "Crossing Over" computer-based exhibition

Screenshots of the "Crossing Over" computer-based exhibition

3D Digital Measurement

At a meeting one day, the conservator responsible for scanning objects presented a series of digital cross-sections of several faience shabtis (see Fig. 4). What he had discovered during his work was that because the 3D replicas were geometrically accurate, they could be used for comparative research.  For example, a researcher could determine whether similar ceramic shabtis came from the same mould by layering cross-sections of 3D models on top of each other digitally to see if the edges matched.  Determining whether a set of shabtis came from the same production mould could greatly assist tracing the provenance of the objects.

(Continued in Part 2)