Digitization of Cultural Heritage Materials with Guest Blogger Matthew Hunter

By Guest Blogger Matthew Hunter, Digital Scholarship Librarian, Florida State University Libraries

White 3D scans of human figures on a 3D printer bed

Over the past several years, the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship (DRS) in the Florida State University Libraries has explored applications of exciting new technologies and how they can be used for teaching, learning, and research. One branch of DRS’s exploration focuses on the application of these technologies in 3D printing and Virtual Reality. We are interested in exploring the development of library services that cater to a field commonly described as “digital cultural heritage.” As part of my work as Digital Scholarship Librarian, I am interested in this field as a form of scholarly research output, but beyond that I am just as interested in the opportunities this technology allows in terms of educational opportunities for a wide variety of audiences.

In the past, digitization of cultural heritage materials (such as architecture, artwork, or archaeological finds) was achieved through the documentation of the objects in question through photography. However, this method renders the rich physical information some objects exhibit as flat, owing to the 2-dimensional nature of photography. With certain technologies, software, and modern techniques, we can move beyond this flat representation and provide a new way of engaging with cultural heritage, allowing for a wider appreciation of the physical aspects of our shared history. More complex examples of this technology include efforts to portray the world, or even preserve it, through 3D printing and Virtual Reality. These tools allow those engaged with digital cultural heritage to convey the sense of scale of a large building through Virtual or Augmented Reality, or allow for users to “hold” and more closely inspect the fine detail of fragile pottery, coins, or similar objects through 3D printed recreations. The applications of this technology are therefore ideal for public institutions such as libraries and museums, since they already serve as gateways to learning through their collections.

Woman using an Oculus Rift

For our part in DRS, we are exploring ways of engaging with current endeavors that try to document objects in new ways, to capture the rich 3D data of physically complex objects. For our work, we are attempting to more faithfully recreate objects with a sense of scale, embodied experience, or detail, so that we can share the objects through 3D printing and virtual reality. These efforts are intended to help students at FSU better understand the aspects of material culture they are studying in their humanities classes – particularly in the context of art and archaeology. At FSU, we are part of a larger group of researchers that have begun to experiment with this idea, producing digital recreations of materials from ancient Etruscan pottery, to the recreation of colonial Puerto Rican architecture. These projects have involved processes of 3D shape recreation using high-tech scanning equipment, or using a process called photogrammetry wherein a computer interprets the shape of an object from a series of photographs depicting different angles. The digital surrogates created through these processes are displayed via virtual reality experiences and through the reproduction of objects with 3D printers.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to exhibit the initial results of some 3D prints we had been working on at the “Backstage Pass” event hosted by The Women for Florida State University, a celebration of innovative research projects currently being undertaken by faculty members that exhibit the creativity and world-class research happening on campus. In partnership with Classics department Assistant Professor Andrea De Giorgi and Ph.D. candidate Allison Smith, I had the opportunity to work with 3D files generated from the excavation of the Roman bath complex at Cosa, a project led by Dr. De Giorgi. Digital recreations generated at the site of the dig in Italy, and crafted in DRS, allowed attendees to the event to interact with the excavations in both Virtual Reality and 3D printed capacities. This project has been one of the first truly comprehensive examples of the development of DRS’s services in the realm of digital cultural heritage, and taught us an enormous amount about working at the intersection of technology and humanities research.

Woman using a 3D scanner on an object

Over the course of 2019, DRS branched out to explore other avenues of digital cultural heritage in partnership with other interested researchers across campus. Particularly, several faculty members in the Art History department, who coordinated a symposium based on 3D data, virtual reality, and the research possibilities they enable. The other group was the talented members of the FSU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives team. For these projects, we began exploring how to use some new 3D scanning equipment and photogrammetry software that would allow us to begin digitizing physical materials for wider dissemination to interested audiences.

This project is still in the exploratory phases, while we determine the best way to digitize and share our physical special collections. So far, the results have been promising! As we gain experience and better understand the complicated technology required to generate faithful 3D models, we are excited to begin sharing the materials held at FSU to wide audiences. However, we also understand that it is vital to share  these models to our patrons in a way that is contextually appropriate, and intellectually stimulating. We are excited to continue developing our processes further, and sharing our results with other institutions. This project ties into many other broader digitization efforts going on around the world, and we will be sure to learn from some of the top producers of digital cultural heritage objects.

Leave a Reply