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January 5, 2012

Contact at a distance: 3D models of collections

Filed under: What's New — Lizzie Ehrenhalt @ 12:10 pm

There’s nothing quite like handling a historic artifact.  Turning over an object in your hands, tracing its shape and testing its weight, you’re free to focus on any detail that grabs your interest, from the lace on a debutante’s glove to the rust on a blacksmith’s tongs.  You can hold it out at arm’s length to see how it reflects light at different angles, then pull it in close to examine surface details.  Handling an object offers an immediate sense of how it was used by its owners, and of its function (or lack of function) in everyday life.  Above all, it creates intimacy–a kind of communion between person and thing that can inspire curiosity, empathy, and awe.

Connecting people and things in an intimate way is one of the core duties of history museums.  But for most institutions, letting visitors handle more than a carefully-chosen sliver of their artifact collections isn’t practical.  Frequent handling can damage an object in a matter of days.  And even the sturdiest relics are out of reach for would-be handlers who live too far away to visit them.

What, then, can museums do to recreate the miracle of contact at a distance?  To encourage handling without the wear-and-tear?  Digital photographs in online catalogs do a great deal, but they have limits.  Take this picture of a Dakota tobacco pouch, for example.

Beaded leather tobacco pouch

It’s a fine image; you can see the intricate seed bead and porcupine quill panels, the water damage to the buckskin shell and even, if you zoom in, the beads trimming the lip of the opening.  But what does the pouch look like when you flip it over?   How deep is the pocket?  What would you see if you could stand it on its end and look inside–that is, if you could treat it like the three-dimensional object it is rather than as a two-dimensional picture?

Thanks to a collaboration between the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota, now you can.

Not too far from MHS, on its Minneapolis campus, the U of M houses a remarkable facility called the Evolutionary Anthropology Laboratory (EAL).  For years, the EAL has been using white light scanning technology to create three-dimensional models of primate bones, allowing anthropology students to conduct up-close research without harming the original specimens.  In 2009, EAL staff used this technology to scan a rare eighteenth century globe acquired by MHS, and in 2011 they returned to capture ten additional artifacts, including a telephone, a toy elephant, a pair of moccasins, a rifle, a knife sheath, a radio, two Civil War-era gowns and the tobacco pouch pictured above.  After several weeks of scanning sessions in the MHS photo lab and post-processing at the EAL, the models were complete.

3D models of each of these objects are now available via Collections Online, a searchable database of MHS artifacts.  Opening a model on your computer is easy and requires no special software–just a standard PDF viewer like Adobe Reader.  Here’s what to do.

1.  Click on any of the images above.  The Collections Online record of the object will display in a new tab or window.

2.  Click on the icon that looks like a page from a notebook.  The model should open inside your browser.

3.  Select an option from the 3D Tools menu to move the object in any way you’d like.  Choose from pan, zoom, spin, rotate, fly and walk functions.

From here, you’re free to explore the object at your own pace, and with your own motives.  Pan across the knife sheath from end to end.   Zoom into the radio’s dial to read its preset stations.  Rotate the gowns for a full appreciation of the silhouette created by Victorian corsets and crinolines.  And take another look at that tobacco pouch.

The seed bead panel on this side, as it turns out, is arranged in a completely different pattern.  Where the first side featured regular diagonal stripes, this pattern is more complex, with triangles and rectangles artfully arranged into a symmetrical grid.  It’s an important feature of the object that the original photograph hides, and that 3D artifact handling brings back to life.

-Lizzie Ehrenhalt, Collections Assistant

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