More and more museums are looking for ways to digitize their museum collection. An increasingly popular way of digitizing, is the implementation of digital 3D models (Younan and Treadaway, 2017, p. 240). Often, the 3D models are used as an addition to the regular collection. The models are not a replacement of museum objects, they support the museum objects (p. 240). There are too many differences between 3D models and museum artifacts for the 3D models to actually replace the museum artifacts. Newell (2012) states that digital artifacts can be seen as “tools for understanding the past” (p. 291), while the original artifact in a museum is “a part of the past” (p. 291). In this way, the two do not have as a goal to exterminate each other, but to complement each other. The question is, what is there to complement for the 3D models. Or, in other words, what are the affordances of a digital collection of 3D models?
‘Interactivity’ is a term that museums use in advertisements, to promote themselves. Whitcomb (2006) even speaks of an “interactives fetish” (p. 353) among museums. She states that the term ‘interactive’ is widely understood as “a device which the visitor can operate, involving physical activity” (p. 354). This is often seen as more entertaining than the regular museum artifact, which visitors view from a distance or from behind a glass, and which they are not allowed to touch.
But there is more in interactives than just fun and entertainment. Whitcomb (2006) believes that, if they are applied well, interactives offer a more effective way of learning than the traditional museum artifact. Successful learning through interaction, she argues, is reached when the focus of the interactive is on the making of meaning (p. 357). The making of meaning can be done by discovery and experience by the visitor him- or herself.
Digital 3D models are one type of interactives. The visitors are enabled to operate them via a digital device by scrolling, turning and zooming. By performing these actions, the museum visitor is actively discovering every possible side and angle of a museum object. In this way, he or she makes meaning of the object, supported by annotations in the 3D model, but maybe also by the real artifact which the model is based upon.
In the following content, you can experience the difference between viewing a museum object and discovering a 3D-model. In Figure 1, a photo of an exhibited mining lamp in the Dutch Mining Museum is visible. In Figure 2, a 3D model of the exact same lamp is visible.
This WordPress theme unfortunately does not support the embedding of 3D models. By clicking the link below, you will be able to experience a 3D model on Sketchfab.
Figure 2: 3D-model of one of the lamps visible in Figure 1
A second gain that comes with the implementation of digital 3D models, is accessibility. 3D models can, as long as they are made available for everyone, be checked upon by people from across the world. Platforms such as Sketchfab, give people the opportunity to view museum collections from home. In this way, a museum collection is democratized (Hyland, 2017, p. 67). In Figure 3 a screenshot of the Dutch Mining Museum’s Sketchfab collection is visible.
A digital collection like this one, means that people who cannot physically visit a museum, for instance because of physical inability or because of money constraints, are still able to see what a museum has to offer. Viewing a 3D model is in this way “no longer necessarily connected to the experience of visiting a place or seeing an original object” (Younan and Treadaway, 2017, p. 243).
But, the 3D models are also not necessary unconnected to seeing the original object. Potential visitors may check the collection prior to going to the museum, as a preparation. And as explained in the section about interactivity, discovering the 3D models during the museum visit can cause an interactive way of learning. That is something visitors value. Hyland (2017) even states that accessibility is the new authenticity, and that digitization has replaced authenticity with accessibility as the “primary value” of an artifact (p. 80).
The rise of 3D models in cultural heritage, also comes with resistance. Experts see the open access to museum artifacts as a threat to museums, fearing that people will no longer actually visit a museum if they can already access the collection online (Younan and Treadaway, 2017, p. 240). Another common fear, is that the reproduction of objects in the form of 3D models, creates a decay of Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura’ (p. 240). Aura is defined by Benjamin as an artwork’s “unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, 1969, p. 3), its authenticity. He believes that the aura of a museum artifact is something a museum visitor feels when looking at the artifact.
Hyland (2017) believes that accessibility is more important for digital objects than authenticity. However, this belief does not take the importance of authenticity completely away. Therefore, it would be a problem if the authentic nature of an object was endangered by the creation of digital 3D models. The question is, if this is the case.
Critics look at 3D-model as a reproductions, copies of their original artifacts. However, this view is not entirely fair. With the currently available software, it is impossible to come very close to the original object while making a 3D model. It is often not even the intention of the 3D model to be a reproduction. It is meant to be an addition to the original. Younan and Treadaway (2015, p. 241) state that in this way, digital models are still embedded in the real world. This means there still is an crucial link between the model and the unique existence in time and space of the museum artifact. Looking at it like this, a 3D model can make the original artifact even stronger, instead of destroying its aura and uniqueness.
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 March 3, 2020.
Hyland, O.M. (2017). Even Better than the real Thing? Digital Copies and Digital Museums in a Digital Cultural Policy. Culture Unbound, 9(1), 62-84.
Newell, J. (2012). Old objects, new media: Historical collections, digitization and affect. Journal of Material Culture, 17(3), 287-306.
Witcomb, A. (2006). Interactivity: thinking beyond. In S. Macdonald (Ed.), A companion to museum studies (pp. 353-361). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
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.
Reflection: My contribution and learning during the project For the final project for the course Creating Digital Collections II, I worked together with my team, the Lamps group, which went well. We decided together on what we wanted for our page: the structure, which H5P elements, which 3D models and what other content. Because of a strong division of tasks, everyone knew what he or she had to do, but at the same time everyone was always willing to help each other and check things when necessary. At first, I was the manager of the group, but when it appeared that the interviewers needed more Dutch speakers, I decided to switch roles and to become responsible for the interviews. My Dutch speaking skills turned out to be very useful there. I did two of the interviews with former miners, which was very interesting, but also very helpful for improving my individual interview skills. Furthermore, I worked on some texts and I edited the videos for our pages. I did some video editing in the past, but that was not really comparable with this. I never created one video of several interviews and I had no experience with intros and outros or subtitles. In this field, I definitely got more skilled during the project. Another interesting thing to see, was the application of the 3D models on a real website. Creating them was something I learned during the last period. Implementing them in a fitting and useful way on the website, I learned during this period. It was also very interesting to work for a specific audience. Most of our website is for a general audience, but we have a specific section for kids. The tone of voice and the content for this section, needed to fit this audience. I never specifically worked for kids, so it was nice to see how many options there were to make things interesting for children, for instance with H5P elements. Summarized, I enjoyed working on this project, and I think I learned a lot about content creation and creative interaction with the audience.