In recent years, a number of museums worldwide have embraced the potential of digital media for their exhibition spaces, programming and collections: as a means to both document and democratise objects and experiences. This blog hopes to make the case for 3D digitisation for museums: highlighting the ways in which this process supplements and enhances the museum experience. Although we would argue it shouldn’t replace more direct experiences, it also addresses the pitfalls of the medium, how museum professionals can acknowledge this, and work with them.
Museums can only display a fraction of their collections at any given time. 3D digitisation can offer museums the chance to display vastly greater proportions of their collections – as one interactive can house an infinite number of objects. This can allow museums to tell stories that have not previously had their moment in the spotlight.
Often, museums are restricted regarding the objects they can display because of conservation concerns – particularly fragile objects must be stored and displayed under strict conditions, and constantly regulated. 3D digitisation can allow museums to bypass difficult or impossible display conditions, bringing the object to audiences without jeopardising the original.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit to 3D digitisation of collections is access. 3D models have the potential to reach global audiences in a way physical objects cannot. They can be made available to researchers at a distance – objects are taken outside the museum space. Museums can even exist solely in a virtual space – take the example of the Kremer Museum, (http://www.thekremercollection.com/the-kremer-museum/) where through virtual reality, audiences can get up close with a collection of 74 Old Master paintings in a museum that does not exist in bricks and mortar. Several museums are taking advantage of the website Sketchfab – which is leading the way in facilitating the sharing of 3D models worldwide. The vast majority of our collection can be viewed on Sketchfab, (https://sketchfab.com/bridges) along with collections from the British Museum, Kunsthistorisches Museum, amongst others.
Access to objects in terms of conceptual understanding can also be increased through 3D digitisation – take the example of the Forth Bridges Project (https://www.theforthbridges.org/visit/go-forth/) in which pupils in Scottish schools can see a 3D reconstruction of the internal workings of the Forth Rail Bridge. In the same way that wax models once were invaluable teaching tools, 3D models can provide unparalleled access to an object’s inner workings and present detail and texture impossible to see with the naked eye.
3D digitisation can encourage ingenious interaction and reimaginings of collections. Whether this be 3D models used in video games or a model remixed on Thingiverse to be 3D printed, (https://www.thingiverse.com/) museums can spark this creativity by making 3D models available to play with. Making objects available for people to play with encourages greater engagement, all the while reducing barriers to interaction. The example of a school boy who downloaded 3D models of the busts of US presidents to create his own virtual museum was shared with great enthusiasm at the DigiDoc conference 2018. These busts are also available to 3D print, if one chooses. If museums are to aspire to making collections accessible to all, allowing people to play with them is a key step in achieving this goal.
When considering the pitfalls of the medium, it is first worth reflecting on our Museum and Memory studies utilising objects from the Bridges Collection. Participants often comment on the fact that they are surprised on viewing the original object, as it is bigger/smaller/heavier/lighter than they had expected it to be. 3D models therefore do have the potential to present a distorted view of an object. Measures that can be taken to avoid this include: listing weights and dimensions, including a scale bar with the model, reattributing the model to its original context, amongst others.
‘Cost’ in this sense can encompass a number of issues: monetary cost for camera equipment and post-processing software eg. Agisoft, and staff cost for the sometimes-lengthy attempts to digitise different objects.
The digitisation process can be complex and is not infallible. We have, on many occasions, been faced with an object that is too shiny, too transparent, or just an awkward shape, that has proved near impossible to digitise in 3D. As the technology continues to develop, this will only improve.
The question of whether digital objects possess an ‘aura’ is one that has been hotly debated.  Can they spark the same wonder and connection with the past that the originals do? This is inextricably linked to questions of authenticity – is seeing a reproduction of an object a valid museum experience? Is a 3D model an object in its own right? These are questions that will continue to be keenly debated as technology continues to progress. What is important to bear in mind is that museums should not seek to replace what visitors may deem a traditional ‘authentic’ experience – we should instead be looking to digital media as one of the most valuable supplementary tools we possess.
In the last few years, 3D digitisation has come on leaps and bounds: boundaries in the field are continually pushed, and new technology allows an ever-increasing number of museums the opportunity to experiment. One hopes that the democratisation of the technology and medium continues at a comparable rate over the coming years – allowing more and more collections to be shared with more and more people: sparking discussion, creativity, and a new stage in the life history of the objects in our collections. We would love for you to share with us your thoughts on the pros and cons of 3D Digitisation, and of your experience with the process!
 Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, ed. Hannah Arendt (2005); Dudley, Sandra, ‘Museum Materialities: Objects, Sense, and Feeling’ in Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, and Interpretations, ed. Sandra Dudley (2009); Betancourt, Michael, ‘The Aura of the Digital’, CTheory (2006) .