3D Scanning & Printing Digitisation

Pulling a rabbit out of a mesh hat – Liz Neely talks about 3D digitisation & 3D printing

At the tailend of February I was invited to address the National Art Educators Association at the Met. I was fresh to NYC and I was in a mood to stir. I spoke about a number of different challenges yet to be properly addressed by the sector – and the one I ended up spending most time on was the opportunities afforded by 3D digitisation and then 3D printing. What, I posed, could be made better for art education if school students could ‘print a work’ back in class? Or, coming as I do from a design museum, students could ‘re-design’ an object by pulling a 3D model apart, prototyping a new form, then printing it to ‘test it’?

Little did I know that a few months later, Don Undeen’s team at the Met itself would hold an artist-hack day to use consumer-grade tools to digitise and print certain works. Their event set off quite a wave of excitement and experimentation across the sector, and fired the imaginations of many.

Liz Neely, Director of Digital Information & Access at the Art Institute of Chicago (not), has been one of those experimenting at the coal face and I sent her a bunch of questions in response to some of her recent work.

Q – What has Art Institute of Chicago been doing in terms of 3D digitisation? Did you have something in play before the Met jumped the gun?

At the Art Institute before #Met3D, we had been experimenting with different image display techniques to meet the needs of our OSCI scholarly catalogues and the Gallery Connections iPad project. The first OSCI catalogues focus on the Impressionist painting collections, and therefore the image tools center on hyper-zooming to view brushstrokes, technical image layering, and vector annotations. Because the Gallery Connections iPads focus on our European Decorative Arts (EDA), a 3-dimensional collection, our approach to photography has been decidedly different and revolves around providing access to these artworks beyond what can be experienced in the gallery. To this end we captured new 360-degree photography of objects, performed image manipulations to illustrate narratives and engaged a 3D animator to bring select objects to life.

For the 3D animations on the iPads, we required an exactitude and artistry to the renders to highlight the true richness of the original artworks. Rhys Bevan meticulously modelled and ‘skinned’ the renders using the high-end 3D software, Maya. We often included the gray un-skinned wireframe models in presentations, because the animations were so true it was hard to communicate the fact that they were models. These beautiful 3D animations allow us to show the artworks in motion, such as the construction of the Model Chalice, an object meant to be deconstructed for travel in the 19th century.

These projects piqued my interest in 3D, so I signed up for a Maya class at SAIC, and, boy, it really wasn’t for me. Surprisingly, building immersive environments in the computer really bored me. Meanwhile, the emerging DIY scanning/printing/sharing community focused on a tactile outcome spoke more to me as a ‘maker’. This is closely aligned with my attraction to Arduino — a desire to bring the digital world into closer dialogue with our physical existence.

All this interest aside, I hadn’t planned anything for the Art Institute.

Mad props go out to our friends at the Met who accelerated the 3D game with the #Met3D hackathon. Tweets and blogs coming out of the hackathon-motivated action. It was time for all of us to step up and get the party started!

Despite my animated—wild jazz hands waving—enthusiasm for #Met3D, the idea still seemed too abstract to inspire a contagious reaction from my colleagues.

We needed to bring 3D printing to the Art Institute, experience it, and talk about it. My friend, artist and SAIC instructor Tom Burtonwood, had attended #Met3D and was all over the idea of getting 3D going at the Art Institute.

On July 19th, Tom and Mike Moceri arrived at the Art Institute dock in a shiny black SUV with a BATMAN license plate and a trunk packed with a couple Makerbots. Our event was different from #Met3D in that we focused on allowing staff to experience 3D scanning and printing first hand. We began the day using iPads and 123D Catch to scan artworks. In the afternoon, the two Makerbots started printing in our Ryan Education Center and Mike demonstrated modelling techniques, including some examples using a Microsoft Kinect (eg).

We also did the printing in a public space. Onlookers were able to catch a glimpse and drop in. This casual mixing of staff and public served to better flesh out public enthusiasm. In the afternoon, an SAIC summer camp of 7-9 year olds stopped by bringing their energetic minds. They were both completely enthralled and curiously bewildered by the process.

The event was a great success!

Colleagues began dialoging about a broad range of usages for education programs, creative re-mixing of the collection, exhibition layout planning, assisting the sight impaired and prototyping artwork installation.

Q – Your recent scan of the Rabbit Tureen used a different method. You just used existing 2D photos, right? How did that work? How many did you need? How accurate is it?

In testing image uploads onto the Gallery Connections iPad app, this particular Rabbit Tureen hypnotised me with its giant staring eye.

Many EDA objects have decoration on all sides, so we prioritised imaging much of work from 72 angles to provide the visual illusion of a 360 degree view like quickly paging through a flip book. It occurred to me that since we had 360 photography, we might be able to mold that photography into a 3D model. This idea is particularly exciting because we could be setting ourselves up to amass an archive of 3D-printable models through the museum’s normal course of 2D sculptural and decorative arts photography.

This hypothesis weighed on my thoughts such that I snuck back into the office over Labor Day weekend to grab the full set of 72 image files.

Eureka! I loaded the files into 123D Catch and it created a near perfect 3D render.

By ‘near perfect’, I mean that the model only had one small hole and didn’t have any obvious deformities. With much Twitter guidance from Tom Burtonwood, I pulled the Catch model into Meshmaker to repair the hole and fill in the base. Voila-we had a printable bunny!

The theory had been proven: with minimal effort while making our 360 images on the photography turntable, we are creating the building blocks for a 3D-printable archive!

Q – What do you think are the emerging opportunities in 3D digitisation? For education? For scholarship? Are curators able to learn new things from 3D models?

There are multitudes of opportunities for 3D scanning and printing with the most obvious being in education and collections access. To get a good 3D scan of sculpture and other objects without gaping holes, the photographer must really look at the artwork, think about the angles, consider the shadows and capture all the important details. This is just the kind of thought and ‘close looking’ we want to encourage in the museum. The printing brings in the tactile nature of production and builds a different kind of relationship between the visitor, the artwork and the derivative work. We can use these models to mash-up and re-mix the collection to creatively explore the artworks in new ways.

I’m particularly interested in how these techniques can provide new information to our curatorial and conservation researchers. I’ve followed with great interest the use of 3D modelling in the Conservation Imaging Project led by Dale Kronkright at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum.

Q – Is 3D the next level for the Online Scholarly Catalogues Initiative? I fancifully imagine a e-pub that prints the objects inside it!

A group of us work collaboratively with authors on each of our catalogues to determine which interactive technologies or resources are most appropriate to support the catalogue. We’re currently kicking off 360 degree imaging for our online scholarly Roman catalogue. In these scholarly catalogues, we would enforce a much higher bar of accuracy and review than the DIY rapid prototyping we’re doing in 123D Catch. It’s very possible we could provide 3D models with the catalogues, but we’ll have to address a deeper level of questions and likely engage a modelling expert as we have for the Gallery Connections iPad project.

More immediately, we can think of other access points to these printable models even if we cannot guarantee perfection. For example, I’ve started attaching ‘Thing records’ to online collection records with associated disclaimers about accuracy. We strive to develop an ecosystem of access to linked resources authored and/or indexed for each publication and audience.

Q – I’m curious to know if anyone from your retail/shop operations has participated? What do they think about this ‘object making’?

Like a traveling salesman, I pretty much show up at every meeting with 2 or 3 printed replicas and an iPad with pictures and videos of all our current projects. At one meeting where I had an impromptu show and tell of the printed Art Institute lion, staff from our marketing team prompted a discussion about the feasibility of creating take-home DIY mold-a-ramas! It was decided that for now, the elongated print time is still a barrier to satisfying a rushed crowd. But in structured programs, we can design around these constraints.

At the Art Institute, 3D scanning and printing remains, for now, a grass-roots enthusiasm of a small set of colleagues. I’m excited by how many ideas have already surfaced, but am certain that even more innovations will emerge as it becomes more mainstream at the museum.

Q – I know you’re a keen Arduino boffin too. What contraptions do you next want to make using both 3D printing and Arduino? Will we be seeing any at MCN?

Ah ha! This should be interesting since MCN will kick off with a combined 3D Printing and Arduino workshop co-led by the Met’s Don Undeen and Miriam Langer from the New Mexico Highlands University. We will surely see some wonderfully creative chaos, which will build throughout the conference.

These workshops may seem a bit abstract at first glance from the daily work we do. I encourage everyone to embrace a maker project or workshop even if you can’t specifically pinpoint its relevance to your current projects. Getting your hands dirty in a creative project can bring and innovative mindset to e-publication, digital media and other engagement projects.

Sadly I won’t have time before MCN to produce an elaborate Arduino-driven Makerbot masterpiece. I’m currently dedicating my ‘project time’ to an overly ambitious installation artwork that incorporates Kinect, Arduino, Processing, servos, lights and sounds to address issues of balance ….

Collection databases Digitisation Metadata Powerhouse Museum websites

Australia Dress Register – public site goes live

The first iteration of the public front end of the Australian Dress Register went live a few weeks back. This release makes visible much of the long data gathering process with regional communities that began in 2008 and continues as more garments are added to the Register over time.

The ADR is a good example of a distributed collection – brought together through regional partnerships. Many of the garments on the site are held by small regional museums or, in some cases, private collectors and families. It is only through their rigorous documentation and then aggregation that it becomes possible to tell the national stories that relate to changes in clothing over the last 200 years.

The ADR extends the standard collection metadata schema that we use for documentation at the Powerhouse with a large range of specific data fields for garment measurements and the quality of preservation. These have been added to allow costume and social history researchers to explore the data in greater detail and granularity. A good way to see the extra level of detail in the ADR is to compare a record on ADR with the same object record in the host institution’s own collection (where it is available online).

Here’s the child’s fancy dress costume from 1938 on the Powerhouse site, side by side with the same object on the ADR. (Click to view the full records)

The Resources section of the site provides volunteers and contributors without the capacity of the major capital city museums to better understand the best practice methods of preserving, documenting and digitising their garments along with a range of simple how-to videos.

The Browse and Search uses Solr on the backend and offers extensive faceting (Here’s just the discoloured garments with buttons). There are multiple views for search results with configurable list and grid views, and relevance, recency and alphabetical result ordering.

The Timeline is one of the visual highlights of the site, along with being rather cool from a technical perspective too. As the collection grows the Timeline and Browsing features will become more valuable to traverse the rich content.

There’s a lot more to go with this site and you’ll be seeing many more records contributed from around the country over the coming months.

Digitisation Powerhouse Museum websites

It was only ten years ago – bringing back to life content from an old website

Ten years ago, one of the first digital projects I had the privilege of working on in a very junior capacity was for the exhibition 1000 Years of the Olympic Games: Treasures of Ancient Greece. Timed to coincide with the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, the heavily sponsored digital component included a virtual reconstruction of Ancient Olympia which was available in 3D (with polarising glasses) in the gallery as well as in 2D online alongside a huge amount of supporting material. A little later there was even a CDROM version (remember them?) that was sent out to schools across the country.

One of the early works by Sarah Kenderdine, now at Museum Victoria, the project was amazing for its time and went on to win awards and a BAFTA nomination.

Up until about 2005 the Powerhouse managed to keep the server that the online component was running on alive. It was built on rudimentary ASP, lots of Flash, some Quicktime VRs, and critically required Zoom Image Server to serve the detailed panoramic images in the FlashPix format. Unfortunately as time passed the ability to keep the site running with all of its content intact diminished and in 2007 we had to turn the whole site off. By 2007 we’d migrated other FlashPix (FPX) content over to Zoomify and the Greek site was the only remnant using the technology and it with server upgrades the older version eventually just stopped working.

After it was switched off the historians, digital archaeologists and museum studies people who used the site as a reference or teaching aid started making contact wondering when the site would come back. Even 7 years after launch it still had a dedicated audience.

So last year we dug up one of the last remaining archival copies of the CDROM and ripped it. We were about to release it as a free downloadable ISO image file – except that when we tested it we found even it had started causing problems on Windows Vista. And of course, back in 2000, no one had seriously considered making a Mac-compatible version.

So we gave up and finally just ripped the videos and the educational PDFs from the CDROM version and popped them up on Vimeo with a basic backgrounder page.

It isn’t the most elegant solution and it is more than a little troubling to think that here’s something that cost a lot of money to make – a mere ten years ago – and only a tiny fragment of it remains usable.

Could we have made better technology choices that would have enabled more effective digital preservation?

Looking back I’m not so sure.

The key components of the site that made it so engaging and bleeding edge at the time didn’t have many (if any) alternatives. Although we’re travelling a much more platform agnostic path at the backend nowadays there’s still many early adopter technologies that we’re experimenting that almost certainly won’t work 5 years from now.

Should we be more vanilla and hold back? Or take calculated risks that some content won’t be able to be preserved?

If you’re interested in seeing what the future was like 10 years ago take a look at some of the videos that took a university render farm days to render . . .

Digitisation open content

Electronic Swatchbook version 2 – lots more public domain swatches, search by colour


We meant to launch our Electronic Swatchbook v2 last year but it got buried in a slew of server upgrades and other projects.

But here it is, now with nearly 2000 public domain patterns available for you to use and re-use. There are a whole lot of new swatches some dating as far back as 1837. And you can now search by colour.

Electronic Swatchbook initially launched way back in 2005. It was our first experiment with user tagging and also with releasing archival material into the public domain. The first iteration was always meant to expand but other projects got in the way.

Back then Electronic Swatchbook proved to us that, on the whole, you – the public – don’t come in and trash the place if we turn on tagging, and that releasing these materials as public domain gave these swatches new life, a new life that was often attributed back to the Museum (even though attribution wasn’t required). The comfort level that resulted led to the Powerhouse’s current range of online practices and pursuit of broader open access.

It should also be restated that the initial Swatchbook was, in part, a response to the demands of fashion design students to get access to the fragile swatchbooks for inspiration – a process that was time consuming, damaged the objects, and led to them being digitally photographed by lots of students.

Better to do this once and service them all. After all, that’s what digital is good at.

Since then we’ve noticed them appearing in all sorts of re-uses. And that warms the cockles of our hearts – and also provides good evidence of the worth of having the collection in the first place.

Giv Parvaneh (now at the BBC) worked on the original 2005 project when he was at the Powerhouse and again he helped on the rebuild and designed the ‘colour search’ feature. It works by analysing each swatch for a core set of colours – determined by breaking the original into smaller chunks then pulling the most dominant colours from each chunk. A colour hash for each image is stored in the database and this makes for quick cross-collection searching. As we add new swatches to the pot they need a once-only colour analysis.

(The site will be tweaked a bit over the next few weeks – the interface was never properly finished but here it is as a 80% done site – better late than never!)

Digitisation open content Web metrics

Library of Congress report on their participation in the Commons on Flickr

Michelle Springer, Beth Dulabahn, Phil Michel, Barbara Natanson, David Reser, David Woodward, and Helena Zinkham over at the Library of Congress have (publicly) released a very in-depth report on their experiences in the Commons on Flickr over a 10 month period.

Titled “For the Common Good: The Library of Congress Flickr Pilot Project” it explores the impacts of the project on access and awareness, traffic back to the LoC’s own website, and, importantly, what they have learned about how collections might operate in the broader social web. Given that their pilot was born of a need to explore the opportunities and challenges of the social web, their findings are important reading for every institution that is dipping their toes in the water.

The Flickr project increases awareness of the Library and its collections; sparks creative interaction with collections; provides LC staff with experience with social tagging and Web 2.0 community input; and provides leadership to cultural heritage and government communities.

I am impressed by the depth of the report and the recommendations. Critically they have identified the resourcing issues around ‘getting the most out of it’ and broken these down as a series of options (see page 34).

Even to maintain their current involvement in the project, they have identified a need to increase resourcing. They also identify that ‘just as is’ is no longer enough.

(2) Continue “as is” – add 50 photos/week and moderate account.

Pro: Modest expense to expand to 1.5 FTE from current 1 FTE (shared by OSI
and LS among 20 staff). Additional .5 FTE needed to keep up with the
amount of user-generated content on a growing account—both in
moderation and in changes to the catalog records (both in Flickr and PPOC).

Con: Loss of opportunity to engage even more people with Library’s visual
collections. Risk of losing attention from a Web 2.0 community that expects new and different content and interaction as often as possible.

Download and read the full report (PDF).

AV Related Digital storytelling Digitisation

Exploring ‘The Bandstand, Hyde Park’ – another video experiment with the Commons on Flickr

On the back of the great feedback on the last video, Jean-Francois Lanzarone has made a whole lot of new little video explorations and here’s one that gets incredible detail out of again, a single image.

The original image is available in the Commons and in our online catalogue as well.

These little 90 second videos are a very simple but effective way of ‘digital storytelling’ – something museums should be quite good at, being as they are, repositories of stories. The technology at work here is nothing more than a very high resolution original scan and a copy of the consumer-grade iMovie – something which, for us, is important to emphasise.

Good ideas trump expensive technology every time.


OCLC’s Beyond the Silos of the LAMs report

Just a few days after the Picnic08 discussions of ‘openness’ comes a very timely report from the OCLC on cross-sector collaboration between libraries, archives and museums (LAMs) titled Beyond the Silos of the LAMs. Diane Zorich, Günter Waibel and Ricky Erway are the authors of the report.

The report is the result of a series of workshops with particular institutions. The notion of a ‘collaboration continuum’ is particularly useful – “As LAMs move from left to right on this continuum, the collaborative endeavor becomes more complex, the investment of effort becomes more significant, and the risks increase accordingly. However, the rewards also become greater, moving from singular, “one-off” projects to programs that can transform the services and functions of an organization.” (pg 11).

The report is bursting with usefulness. In discussing the reposnse to a changing network environment;

LAMs are increasingly aware that they are not primary Web destinations and that most users are directed to resources through search engines or through portals specific to their areas of interest. They also see that much of the social interaction they hope will take place on their sites now occurs in community networking spaces such as Flickr and Facebook.

While some LAMs are trying to ameliorate this situation by putting their content where the users are (for example, by adding links to Wikipedia pages or placing images on Flickr), these efforts are exploratory and have not yet altered the fundamental strategy for collection access or the primacy of the campus Web site. The discussion exposed an underlying tension between the vision of seamless collections access and community engagement on local Web sites, and the shift in online user behavior where access and engagement now occur at a broader network level. (pg 15).

Or looking at the reasons why institutions find collaboration difficult;

Unfortunately, incentive and reward structures for collaborations are largely absent in most institutions. More strikingly, existing incentive structures often position LAMs so they compete with one another in ways that discourage collaboration. For example, when performance plans use metrics that focus on the success of individual departmental efforts and activities, departments will naturally promote their own activities to the exclusion of all others. One of the workshop participants succinctly summed up this conundrum as follows:

“We have spoken long about cross-institutional collaboration. The reality has been though…that we are measured against each other and then you do take naturally a possessive attitude.”

The absence of incentive structures for collaboration inadvertently fosters competitive behavior in other areas as well. For example, the proprietary sense of ownership of collections and databases that exists among some LAMs is perpetuated in an environment where collaboration is not promoted through an incentive system. (pg23)

This is an incredibly important report at this juncture where technological options, global funding uncertainties, and changing audience expectations, are beginning to align to force our hands with respect to institutional collaboration, effective cross search and resource discovery.

Now, having read the report, if you are a GLAM with a design collection, come and add it to D*Hub, the Powerhouse Museum’s hub for design – as the t-shirt would say, “ask me how”. Or, if you’d like to propose something collaborative with the Powerhouse Museum collection then make contact.

Conceptual Digitisation

Jace Clayton on afro-funk and digital preservation

One of favourite music and culture bloggers (and DJs), Jace Clayton has a lovely piece in Frieze which explores the issues around how collectors might trawl the digital music of today in forty years time. He starts out looking at the recent craze in African funk reissues – records recovered from master tapes buried in dusty warehouses in Africa – the ephemeral pop music of the time – and wonders how this same activity might occur in the future.

In a world of rock songs sold as ringtones and YouTube-launched singles, there’s something heroic about Redjeb’s travails. Reissues aside, there are no more treasured ‘master tapes’ to be repackaged and sold years later. The music of the early 21st century exists in a digital ecosystem. Songs now travel from a recording studio’s hard drive to CD and beyond in the form of zeros and ones.


You can’t help but wonder how a man like Redjeb will dig for off-the-beaten-path music 40 years from now. For future hunter–gatherers of musical greatness, those dusty Benin warehouses filled with scorpions and records whose local relevance has long since evaporated will have been replaced by … what, exactly? Cluttered hard drives? Obsolete iPhones? Some people hoard MP3s, but nobody collects them in the traditional sense. Digital Africa is exemplified by the trio of expat Africans who run New York City’s bootleg CD-r mixtape industry.

Having a foot (an ear?) in both worlds of museums and music, I’ve often heard it said that the role of curators will necessarily grow rather than shrink. Yet the nature of curatorial practice is inevitably changing too as a the materials curators bring together become, increasingly ephemeral, impermanent cultural materials. And now that the social life of these materials is also digital, it is becoming far less about collecting, and documenting ‘objects’ but more about entire cultural ecosystems.

AV Related Digitisation Web 2.0

Video archives in YouTube? – National Library of Scotland

Lorcan Dempsey pointed to this rather excellent presentation titled ‘There’s No Place Like Home?’ from Ann Cameron at the National Library of Scotland. In it she describes way that the NLS has been uploading archival video materials to YouTube and highlights some of the issues around Copyright, and metadata that have emerged from the project. The issues around context (slide 15) are also important in light of Henry Jenkins’ recent presentation.

Digitisation Metadata Web 2.0

Flickr Commons – mass exposure of historical images

As a lot of museums (and libraries) have been using Flickr in lightweight ways for various purposes from image storage to building community engagement for quite a while, it is exciting to see a new formal collaborative project between Flickr and a major institution launch.

Flickr Commons is a project between Flickr and the US Library of Congress. It provides a secondary point of access to some of the out-of-Copyright historical photo collections of the LoC. Whilst these photos have all existed on the LoC’s own website, they have been, like most image collections, only known to those audiences who are familiar with the work of the LoC already and are undertaking (‘serious’) research.

The project is beginning somewhat modestly, but we hope to learn a lot from it. Out of some 14 million prints, photographs and other visual materials at the Library of Congress, more than 3,000 photos from two of our most popular collections are being made available on our new Flickr page, to include only images for which no copyright restrictions are known to exist.

Placing these images on Flickr allows the images to reach a much broader audience and be connected with images of similar people, places and things in contemporary photography. Importantly, this audience’s labour can be engaged to assist in tagging and geolocating the images – work that the LoC is unable to do so efficiently or presumably as quickly.

As George Oates from Flickr writes

There are about 20 million unique tags on Flickr today. 20 million! They are the bread and butter of what makes our search work so beautifully. Simply by association, tags create emergent collections of words that reinforce meaning. You can see this in our clusters around words like tiger, sea, jump, or even turkey.

What if we could lend this wonderful power to some of the huge reference collections around the world? What if you could contribute your own description of a certain photo in, say, the Library of Congress’ vast photographic archive, knowing that it might make the photo you’ve touched a little easier to find for the next person?

This isn’t the first formal engagement between a library and Flickr. The National Library of Australia’s Picture Australia project set up a relationship to allow the community to upload contemporary images to Flickr and have them catalogued inside the NLA’s resource as well.

What is interesting about the Commons project is that it reverses this and releases back to the community a wealth of historical imagery that previously was hard to find. Flickr is a good match for the collections of images already available under this project – the pro-am photographic community is well represented in Flickr which bodes well for higher quality tagging and user generated content, Flickr already has a lot of ‘similar’ contemporary content with which these historical images can be linked, and of course Flickr’s API opens up some interesting possibilities for recombinatory projects.

No doubt many other organisations will be watching this closely to see what impact this has on the LoC’s reputation and image sales revenue. Also, for those who hold similar collections, how their own image sales revenue is affected. Likewise, others will ask whether these public domain resources should now also be replicated out to other image services as well, and when more public domain collections will be uploaded in a similar fashion.

More over at the Flickr blog and the LoC’s own blog.