3D Scanning: three-dimensional artefacts from the past, for the future – part 2

Guest post, from Seana Farrington a PHD candidate at University College Cork, reporting on 3D Scanning: Three-dimensional Artefacts from the Past, for the Future, held in Cambridge on 10 adn 11 December 2012

Representing Reformation: 3D Scanning and Documentation Conference: Day 1
This two day conference convened by Phillip Lindley (University of Leicester) was primarily focussed on the use of 3D scanning in diverse projects undertaken in the fields of History, Art History and Archaeology.

As a first year Ph.D candidate in University College Cork’s DAH programme my interest was immediately peaked when the conference announcement arrived in my Inbox from the H-ArtHist subscription service. My Ph.D application proposes an interrogation of the Bantry Papers archive housed in UCC’s Boole Library, with outcomes strongly based on engaging with digital technology, for example a re-creation of the second Earl of Bantry’s art collection, now dispersed, to be housed in a virtual and interactive environment.

I made contact with Conny Bailey who was wonderfully helpful, and feeling reassured that attendance at this conference was a must I submitted an application for a fully funded student place. It was my intention to attend the conference regardless of the outcome, but I was absolutely delighted to be awarded a place, and wish to thank Phillip Lindley for a great opportunity and JISC for funding it. Peter Findlay represented JISC at the conference.

The first day of the conference is now over and I have to say I am overwhelmed (in a good way) with the projects and papers that formed our first day’s fare. Inter- and trans- disciplinarities seem to be in the air everywhere, as readers of my first post regarding The Experience of Illness symposium will be aware, and this day’s papers certainly highlighted cross discipline practice.

From Phillip Lindley’s welcoming address to the final speaker, of the day, Jack Hinton, everyone demonstrated how the use of digital technology had broadened their interaction with their chosen material and enabled comparative studies that would have been impossible without the use of advanced scanning and software applications and knowledge.

Phillip led the way suggesting that we avoid the negativism of C. P. Snow (a name with which I had only just become familiar!) and take our lead instead from William Cheselden and his Osteographia (1733), as a “fruitful model of collaboration” and “interesting model of the use of mechanical means by artists to represent complex three dimensional objects”. The picture does indeed replace a thousand words and sometimes is the only means of describing intricacies that language fails to capture. Phillip’s paper ‘Representing Re-Formation: the search for objectivity’ went on to show that, in turn, what the picture fails to deliver can be provided by 3D scanning. 3D scanning allows the researcher to postulate different reconstructions and can be used to test the accuracy of 2D reconstructions. The greater subjectivity of traditional manual draughtsmanship was demonstrated by the PhD student, Nishad Karim’s (Representing Re-Formation) computer aided modelling based on a drawn image.

Two points that particularly interested me was that the plan of dissemination to a wider audience was to be based on “conveying uncertainty and complexity rather than [to] convey a simple narrative” and the opportunity for researchers to “attempt to ‘reconstruct’ what was never carried out” in this case due to the Reformation. Thirdly, the construction of a highly accurate 3D scanned record will provide invaluable data to future researchers.

Audience Question: Value
Phillip responded to this by highlighting the use of 3D reconstructions to show elements that don’t fit due to complexity and fallibility of human draughtsmanship, along-with the ‘permanent’ storage of data for the use of future scholars and the enablement of many different reconstructions. To that I suggest that the possibility of greater access by the general public to objects residing in sites that may be geographically distant from them is another addition of value.

A break for lunch and then the first of the afternoon’s speakers, Anna Thirion (University Montepelier 3) presented ‘Proposal for a digital reconstruction of the Romanesque ‘tribune’ of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa (France): methodological considerations’. Anna’s paper was a tour de force of what a single scholar can manage and achieve. Her thesis is about the anastylosis of the aforementioned tribune. One of Anna’s outcomes is the presentation of findings from the investigator to the public and the importance of conveying the hypothetical nature of any model achieved and to make transparent the processes of reconstruction.

Laura Bartolome Roviras (Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya) spoke on her joint project with Manuel Castineiras on the Romanesque Portals of Santa Maria de Ripoll, Santiago de Compostela and Sant Pere de Rodes: from modelling to reconstruction’. She explained how the use of digital technology made possible access to scattered documentary sources, and to carved elements that have been removed and are now in various collections throughout Europe and America. The researcher’s goals are to provide excellent opportunities for research through high resolution tools and create a true repository of reconstructed information such as chronology, iconography and relationships, while providing web pages with enhanced information through text, additional images and early photography that will give extra information on iconographical series.

Audience Question: What evidence is being used for the reconstructions?

Textual evidence is one form of evidence, but any reconstruction remains highly hypothetical.
Coming up to tea time Annemarie La Pensee (National Museums Liverpool) outlined some of the projects undertaken by the Conservation Technologies team in ‘The non-contact 3D laser scanning of cultural artefacts and its applications at Conservation Technologies, National Museums Liverpool’. The main question posed was a simple why. Some key concepts were: change; conservation; preservation of vulnerable objects; exploration of tool marking; subjectivity, to understand it, minimize it and document it. A concern for the team is accuracy which is aided in turn by understanding the role of operator influence in scanning objects. A neat phrase that Annemarie used to describe their work with artists was of providing “a new chisel in the sculptor’s tool set”.

Audience Question: Concerns about authenticity when reconstructing or making replicas.

Annemarie described the protocols in place to ensure that any possibility of mistaking a replica for an original was most unlikely. These include thorough documentation of the work, use of materials contemporary with the creation of the replica and changes in scale. She also discussed ethics, copyright and issues around data storage.

In one of those moments of serendipity, perhaps in this instance slightly engineered, the next speaker, Marcos A Rodrigues (Sheffield Hallam University) spoke more fully on the challenges of “uncooperative materials”, touched on in Annemarie’s paper, in ‘3D Scanning of Highly Reflective Surfaces: Issues on Scanning the Museums Sheffield Metalwork Collection’. Marcos spoke from a computer science perspective rather than that of the arts and humanities. He too picked up on issues of copyright and described how this could be navigated through the use of different resolution models. He also explained the difficulties of transferring the work to the web and the need for compression of up to 99.7% of the data collected during the scanning process. Marcos also spoke about the need for compatible standards and the difficulties in prediction of platforms. The importance of keeping the full resolution model was also stressed, as this should be made available by request to users who require greater visuality.

Audience Question: Regarding the materiality and utility of many of the objects chosen for scanning: how was this expressed?

Marcos responded that items with removable lids, for example, have been scanned closed and open, with and without the lid in place. However, it was not possible to allow the webpage user to interact with the object in such a way that they could open and close a lidded item.

In George W Fraser’s ‘Scanning in Space and Time’ we were treated to a truly interdisciplinary paper from a physicist whose day job is developing equipment and instrumentation for ‘probes’ (if that’s the right word) to Mars and Mercury. He demonstrated the diversity of his interests and how arts and humanities scholars can use tools developed for imaging in space to explore the materiality of objects in virtual environments. He also touched on the dangers of outgassing from replicas to original items in collections and the difficulties of incompatibility when transferring data from high cost to low cost systems. Similarly to Marcos’s paper George also talked about the decimation of data (up to 99.9%), but in relation to the aforesaid differences in compatibility, which meant that that data was permanently lost. This provoked some concerns from the audience.

Audience Questions: Did you compare raw data from the two different scanner levels? How can you compare if you decimate data collection results?

George responded that the two sets of data were not compared and my understanding was that the project did not lose an opportunity to add value by this decimation. I am sure that this lively discussion was continued over dinner.

On the graveyard shift, as it were, was Jack Hinton (Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Philadelphia Museum of Art) with ‘Measuring Genius: 3D scanning and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Portraits of Benjamin Franklin’. Jack brought us back to the world of art history describing the comparative investigation of Houdon’s busts of Franklin. Jack highlighted the importance of collaborative effort in studies of this nature, including the use of extra-institutional services to provide expertise and equipment that would otherwise render such an endeavour too costly. The work undertaken offered new suggestions about Houdon’s studio practice and how the original bust related to later versions; however some questions remain unanswered.

Audience Question: What is the legacy of the project?

The project was devised as a means of understanding the relationship of the four portrait busts to each other and as a model of Houdon’s studio practice. Issues of legacy had not been raised. Delegates suggested that the data captured during the scanning process could be used to create an interactive virtual exhibit.

Themes that recurred over the day were:
Ruin and fragment
Mediation [to the non-specialist public]
Data Storage

Representing Reformation: 3D Scanning and Documentation Conference: Day 2
We were welcomed on the second day by Ross Parry (University of Leicester) who spoke briefly about the previous day’s proceedings and outlined the day’s theme ‘Wider 3D scanning & digitisation projects,’ he also introduced each of the speakers in turn.

So, with the day over, and the conference at an end there must come time for reflection and thinking about the variety of topics presented. In Day 2’s papers there was an emphasis on the mechanics of using and applying a variety of technologies to the speakers’ projects. For that reason, I too am changing the format of this blog from Day 1. Readers will notice that I have not included audience questions, this is because the technical nature of query and response was, to be honest, rather over my head so, what I will give here are synopses of the speakers’ papers as they struck me.

First up was Mike Howe (British Geological Survey) with ‘Laser scanning 563 million years of evolution: the JISC GB/3D type fossils online project’. Mike started by explaining to us lay-people what type fossils are and gave us a bit of history on how they had been catalogued and displayed. The historical practice had been to provide specimens to the Geological Society on publication of a paper in their journal. This created a huge body of specimens that required housing, care and display. Unfortunately, the Geological Society made a decision to choose its library over its museum and the collection was dispersed.

Currently there are three databases for type specimens: the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; the Natural History Museum, University of Oxford; and the Geological Survey, Type Specimens. A proposal was submitted to JISC to work with partner institutions and local museums countrywide to create a single British database of type fossils. A side-effect of the project has been the re-assessment of type fossils, leading to changes of classification. A core element of the project is to make the database freely accessible to the public with an interactive element to aid online research.

Mike highlighted the requirement that research needs to be of use and value and posited that the best measure of impact is reuse of raw data. This idea of value was one carried forward from the previous day and was a recurring theme in the papers to follow. If you wish to see more of Mike’s work, follow the project blog.
Andrew Wilson (University of Bradford) followed with ‘3D Bones – Digital documentation of skeletal remains’. In this fascinating paper Andrew stressed documentation as a prime interest and goal of this JISC funded project. The fragility of the most requested specimens mirrors arts and humanities concerns about the potential of damage to vulnerable and unique objects. In Andrew’s field, palaeopathology of human osteology the specimens are just as irreplaceable as the individual work of art, as these bones show the unchecked progress of disease, which would be unavailable through modern samples due to advances in treatment protocols that alter disease progression, even if they cannot always halt or reverse it.

Handling of human remains is preferable to teaching through models that tend to even out and obscure natural variation, but this handling causes immense damage to samples and as iterated above, it is often the most fragile items that are most frequently requested.
3D scanning is also invaluable at sites where sensitivity demands that finds be re-interred. In an echo of Annemarie and Marco’s difficulties with uncooperative materials, Andrew explained that bones too can be uncooperative due to their inherent porosity. A further difficulty in scanning is that lasers do not have the subtlety to differentiate pathological holes from surface topography. The project team’s two artists provide the missing subtlety through colouring and texturing. It can take anything from 15 – 100 photographs to work out the texturing on a single bone, bringing out the labour intensive nature of the work, which likewise was a shared theme in many papers.

With complexity and detail as driving factors every scan has to be re-checked. This is done collaboratively by the project’s clinician. Andrew passed his iPad amongst the delegates so that we could experience at first hand the quality and interactive capabilities of the finished product. The 3D scans are being used for teaching in Bradfield University and have received highly positive feedback from students, comparing them favourably with actual specimens and above photographic reproductions in standard text books. Read the project blog here.

In a witty segue we went from bones to stones as Paul Bryan (English Heritage) took us on a tour of recent work at Stonehenge. He showed how the use of digital technology can create findings that exceed expectations, for example in how the stones were worked and the uncovering of prehistoric carvings that are invisible to the naked eye. The data creates a detailed record of the Stones in their current condition, and it will be possible to determine the impact of public access to the Stones at the Solstices, amongst other challenges in conservation.
Re-use of the data with virtual content will enhance the visitor experience when the new Visitors’ Centre opens.
See more here.

Time for an extended coffee break after which we reassembled for David Arnold (Director of Research Initiatives and Dean of Brighton Doctoral College) who spoke about ‘3D documentation: Current Practice and future potential’. A useful web address to go with his paper is: www.3D-COFORM.eu. Working with nineteen partners over four years the goal is to make 3D documentation a practical alternative for Cultural Heritage Institutions. An obstacle to this is the lack of a shared thesaurus/taxonomy/semantics of shape. Another challenge is the exclusion of properties, such as physicality, chemical components and density. These too will require the creation of a standardized descriptive language (in my opinion). The benefits of 3D scanning have been previously expressed, but I will reiterate them. They are: better control of access, diminution of wear and tear, and superior visualization of items that may be too small, intricate or inaccessible for manual handling. See the National Palace Museum of Taiwan’s carved olive stone boat as an example.

Documentation may allow novel analysis, condition monitoring, provide an opportunity to record temporary exhibitions and provide an alternative when items are out on loan. 3D documentation has a role to play in providing provenance for stolen artefacts. David gave us the incredible statistic that one public sculpture goes missing every week in Britain. 3D documentation also offers an alternative route to commercial exploitation through the production of replicas as souvenirs.
A technical detail that at this stage goes over my head, but may be of interest to readers is David’s advocacy of C.CRM as a semantic web approach to documentation, i.e. text and annotation as a better way of navigating through different datasets, as it is used by Museums, Libraries and Archives.

After lunch we had a reversal of order recommencing with Stephen Gray (University of Bristol) and ‘The challenges of using 3D digital tools and methodologies across different research disciplines’. Stephen spoke about JISC support services and their role in democratizing technology. He also addressed the issue to the legal grey area surrounding sharing and publishing 3D content and posed the question: is there a need for a different legal framework? He shared with us projects as diverse as the use of augmented reality in teaching veterinary students and motion capture in choreography and sports.

The final paper was given by Douglas Pritchard (Director of Operations at CyArk Europe and Creative Director at CyArk California). Visually this was certainly the most engaging of papers and I have to admit that I was so enthralled that note taking was suspended, as Doug took us on a tour of the most amazing projects being undertaken to document designated world heritage sites. The focus was on the Scottish Ten project that has been mandated to capture five Scottish sites and five international sites.
As a gauge of just how impressive these projects are, the reader may compare them imaginatively to any extreme sport they are familiar with and multiple that by a factor of a hundred (at least). With Mount Rushmore (USA) and Rani Ki Vav (India) as just two examples you will understand that we are dealing here literally with ‘big data’! I did however pull myself together long enough to record an audience question.

Audience Question: How long is post-processing?

For everyday of scanning there is one to two days of post-processing.

Following Doug’s tour de force presentation we had tea and the round table discussion and summary, chaired by Peter Findlay (JISC).

Some of the themes Peter helped to summarise were:


Other themes of the day:
Knowledge sharing
Impact on the wider society
Teaching and Learning

In conclusion
For a novice in the area of Digital Arts and Humanities, much of the wealth of technical knowledge went over my head, but the openness and collegiate attitude of the organizers, speakers, students and interested persons created an environment full of opportunities to learn. What I took away at a professional level is the sheer complexity of creating a single 3D scan, never mind creating a realistic virtual environment that can be toured by the web user. However complexity is not synonymous with impossibility, as was demonstrated by the variety of projects presented.

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