In our digital age, cultural heritage is being digitized at a rapid pace. A new way of digitization is the production of 3D-models: digital, three-dimensional versions of art forms and cultural heritage objects. An interesting development, which leaves us with a lot of stuff to think about, especially in terms of aura and originality.
Aura in digitized cultural heritage
Walter Benjamin (1969) wrote about the decay of aura already in 1936. He believed that from the moment photography and film were introduced, everything became reproducible. This reproducibility is where Benjamin’s ideas started. Focusing on artworks, he believed that the fact that one could theoretically reproduce everything by photographing or filming it caused a decay of aura. Aura, he defined as an artwork’s “unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, 1969, p. 3). Thus, ‘aura’ refers to the uniqueness and the original elements of an artwork, and also to the history and tradition behind it. And Benjamin believes that ‘aura’ is something one feels when experiencing an artwork.
In today’s digitized society, it has become even easier to reproduce artworks and objects of cultural heritage. A fairly new way of reproduction is 3D-modelling. An increasing number of museums has been using 3D digitization of their collections in the past few years. Fears that have arisen because of this development are often about how these digital models “distort the context and meaning of the original artefacts” (Younan and Treadaway, 2015: p. 240). In other words: these 3D-‘reproductions’ possibly destroy the aura of art works and cultural heritage. The question is, if that is the truth. To find out more about this, in this blog I am taking a closer look at my own experiences of creating 3D-models.
It all started in the beginning of this year, when we were asked to do a project for the Dutch Mining Museum. The museum wanted to digitize its collection and they ‘hired’ us, a group of Digital Cultures students, to do that. Together with my three other students, I was responsible for the digitization of the mining lamps, including 3D-models. To get that done, we worked according to a method called ‘Structure for Motion’. We photographed our objects from all possible angles, after which we used special software that creates models out of the photos. Sounds easy, but it definitely is not.
To copy or to complement?
The goal of the 3D-model of course is to make it look exactly like the original object. The 3D-model should be realistic and reliable. However, the truth is that this is an illusion. With the software that is currently available, it is impossible to create an exact copy of an object in the form of a digital 3D-model, simply because it is digital. You cannot touch it, you cannot smell it and you cannot hear it: it is just visual. And even in the visual aspects of the model, there are a lot of differences with the real object, in texture, but also in functionality. Take the example of the mining lamp: you can never light up a digital 3D-model (because for most lamps, you need fire), while you can light up a real mining lamp.
We have to ask ourselves the question why we even modelled these things, if they will never look like the original object? Well, the 3D-models also have some advantages compared to the original objects. The lamps in the museum are mostly exposed in a display case. Visitors of the museum are not allowed to touch them, and they cannot look at them from every possible angle. It is impossible to get very close to the lamps and the visitors also are not able to flip them over or to move them. That is something a 3D-model does allow them to do.
Hylland (2017, p. 64) states that a digital representations are not copies of the original artefacts and that it’s not their intention to be one. What I wrote above is the prove of this. What a 3D-model does is complement the original object, not replace it. That should not be the goal either. Visitors of the museum can look at both the 3D-model and the original object, without seeing the same thing twice. They will see our lamps on a tablet of computer before, after or during their museum visit, but they will also see the original object displayed in the museum. And both will cause a completely different experience. Think about it: looking at something from a screen, where you can scroll, swipe and zoom is different than looking at something exposed in a display case in a museum, right? Younan and Treadaway (2015) recognize this difference as well. They state that museum artefacts can be looked at as part of the past, while 3D-models of museum artfacts are used as “tools for understanding the past” (p. 240), and that that is the most important difference.
I will invert one of my 3D-models of mining lamps from Sketchfab here after they are finished.
The aura of 3D-models
Next thing we should ask ourselves, is if Benjamin was right. Does this type of reproduction cause ‘new’ objects without aura? Or, if I rephrase this question: Do 3D-models have aura? Before we can answer this question, we should quickly return to what Benjamin defined as ‘aura’. He understood the term as an object’s uniqueness in time and space. Can we translate these aspects from the original object to a digitized 3D-model?
I think ‘no’ is the only possible answer one can give here. We cannot translate an object’s uniqueness and original, simply because the object is not unique and original anymore as soon as there is a second version of it. It is also impossible to translate its history and tradition, because a 3D-model’s history and tradition is too different from the real object. It is created in a completely different way. The only way we can get a bit close to the original object’s history and tradition within the 3D-model is by adding metadata and descriptions to it. But that will in no way give the museum visitor the same feel as when looking at the real object.
Can we then conclude that 3D-models do not have aura? No, we cannot. What we can state is that 3D-models do not have the same aura as the original object. But that does not mean that there is no aura in 3D-models at all. We already saw that we should not see 3D-models as copies of originals. But could it be the case that a 3D-model has a different aura than the original object?
From my own experience I can state that 3D-modelling an object is a very time-consuming, precise work. It is at least for mining lamps. The software does not do everything for the creator: a lot of manual steps should be undertaken, and many choices have to be made, for instance in terms of colors, lightning and texture. There is room for creativity here and the personal choices from the creator play an important role in the creation of 3D-models. And even though a consequence of this creativity is that the model never is exactly like the original artefact, one can state that this creates a sort of uniqueness around the 3D-model. Younan and Treadaway (2015, pp. 240-241) believe that even though the digital 3D-models are in several ways different from the original artefacts, and thus not completely truthful, they are still authentic in a way.
Jeffry (2015) goes a step further in this, by stating that by our current, unique way of creating digital models, they have acquired their own aura, partly because of a “meaningful aesthetic that has an appeal beyond the present age” (p. 150). He even asks himself the question: “Will there be exhibitions of early 21st century archaeological visualizations in the way that the diaries and sketches of antiquarians or ancient maps are displayed today?” (p. 150).
We can state something against all of this this, though, namely that a digital 3D-model does not have a unique existence in time and space, which is, according to Benjamin, crucial for the concept of aura. 3D-models can often be accessed via every computer. That means that the model does not just exist in one place at the time, but in multiple locations, all over the world (Younan and Treadaway, 2015, p. 240). This argument, however, can be tackled. As stated in the section above, a 3D-model does complement the original object, not replace it. This means that there is a meaningful, maybe even crucial relation between the two of them. Younan and Treadaway (2015, p. 241) state that in this way, digital models are still embedded in the real, physical world, so that there still is an essential link between the 3D-model and the unique existence in time and space of the object in the museum.
A decay of aura?
The last, and maybe even the most important question that needs to be answered, is if the ‘reproduction’ in the form of a 3D-model, creates a decay of aura from the original object. If we summarize everything we have seen so far, we will see that we actually already answered this question.
Firstly, we concluded that a 3D-model is not so much a copy of an artefact, but more of a complement to the artefact. Therefore, ‘reproduction’ is actually the wrong word. Next, while looking at the aura of objects from this perspective, it became clear to us that a 3D-model cannot possibly influence the uniqueness of the original object. Firstly, because the two differ too much and the 3D-model is not intended to be a copy. Secondly, because the 3D-model has turned out to be unique in itself, partly because of the unique way in which we create it. So, the aura of the original remains unaffected.
You do not have to worry about destroying auras while 3D-models. The opposite is even true: a 3D-model and the original artefact will only make each other stronger.
Benjamin, W. (1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. In Aerendt, H. (ed.). Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books. Retrieved from https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf on January 29, 2020.
Hyland, O.M. (2017). Even Better than the real Thing? Digital Copies and Digital Museums in a Digital Cultural Policy. Culture Unbound, Volume 9(1). 62–84.
Jeffrey, S. (2015). Challenging heritage visualisation: beauty, aura and democratisation. Open Archaeology, 1(1).
Younan, S., & Treadaway, C. (2015). Digital 3D models of heritage artefacts: Towards a digital dream space. Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, 2(4), 240–247.