Rapid 3D Scanning: Is this the Future?

8 minute read

3D scanning was once reserved to experts with dedicated gear, but now anyone with a smartphone can create good-quality digital versions of the objects around them. This short blog asks the question: is this the future of creative and collaborative museum practice?

As a research assistant at MAA, I began to think about this question last year, when the Oxford-based Institute for Digital Archaeology controversially used handheld devices to scan the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum. Among other things, the takeaway was that it is now possible to create usable 3D models of objects, which can be zoomed, rotated, and widely shared, in only a matter of minutes. A host of freely-available apps, such as Polycam, facilitate this for complete beginners like myself.

Armed with my ageing iPhone, I have since made a series of scans during the course of visits to particular collection objects at MAA, with surprisingly good results. In each case it has taken less than five minutes or so to capture about 50–100 snaps of an object from all angles, after which the software takes over and renders the images as a 3D object that can be saved, emailed, or even used as a basis for creating traditional 2D photographs to print out. 

A merit of 3D scans is that for basic purposes they can substitute for the physical examination of objects, and so lessen the risks inherent to repeated unpacking and handling. The example scan below is of an object to which I have made repeated digital visits, after first viewing it in the MAA stores. It is of an Aboriginal Australian parrying shield from the Sydney region, registered as Z 29059. For reasons unknown, this shield spent much of the nineteenth century in the library of Jesus College, Cambridge, before transfer to MAA. It is almost certainly very old, and perhaps even one of the oldest of its kind.

Short-sighted as I am, what is remarkable about this scan is that it allows me to see the object more clearly than I could in person. The flecks of white ochre and tiny scattered spots of sealing wax on the shield’s surface initially escaped my notice; rendered in this way, the valleys of carved incised zig-zagging lines can be entered almost as if in a flight simulator, allowing the individual impressions made with a shell implement to be counted and compared. This would be impossible to do in person without considerable eye strain, and impossible to capture with a normal camera. The carved design wends across the shield’s different faces; to draw, trace, or compare these through photographs alone would be a challenge. 

The advantages of being able to make such scans quickly and cheaply are as varied as the functions of a museum itself; photographs are already integral to the daily work of exhibition, conservation, and communication of objects in collections. A transition to 3D scanning would eliminate the common problems faced in using images which show only one side of an object, are low resolution, or which have not been taken with good lighting and a clear background. I am reminded of my failed attempt, during a trip to Scotland a few years ago, to take a good photograph of a three-metre long spear while balanced on a stepladder in a dimly-lit room. Nowadays, I would make a scan; the end result would be a composite image of the spear produced from pictures taken in much greater proximity. The user would be able to see a good-quality image of the entire object, or zoom straight in to find the small details. Since the individual images would all be close-ups, a basic camera would suffice.

A long, brown shield decorated with incised patterns.

Figure 2. Parrying shield, decorated with a deeply incised pattern. A red wax seal has been impressed on its left. Possibly from Victoria or New South Wales, Australia. Deposited by the Jesus College Library in Cambridge. MAA Z 29059.

Less abstractly, my scan of Z 29059 and another, below (showing part of a Polynesian adze), illustrate the considerable potential value that 3D scanning has for the MAA’s collaborations with descendants of objects’ first makers and users, in which the exchange of photography is a common early step. As noted above, an issue sometimes encountered in preliminary discussions to arrange in-person visits, or to select candidate objects for exhibition or overseas loan, is that the conventional representation of objects through 2D photography inevitably if unintentionally privileges the photographer, as decider of how an object is shown. This can have a political impact as well as a purely practical one: it is impossible to know which areas of an object may be found most interesting; it can be impractical to exchange multiple individual photographs, or to request specific instructions on how photography of an as-yet unseen object should be done. It is not always obvious which is the right way round. 

But it is also a case of seeking advice, and explaining uncertainty. A perplexing feature of the shield Z 29059 is the wax seal impressed over the incised design on one side near the tip. It’s a puzzle that whoever was responsible didn’t choose the smoother surface on the back of the shield, near the handle, for it. Was the seal left by the shield’s first British possessor, as a clue to their identity? Or is it more likely nineteenth-century graffiti: an ‘I was here’ left by a mischievous student of Jesus College; could it be dated that way instead? Does this latter theory explain the traces of splattered wax elsewhere visible on the shield? Can you make out the design of the seal? Let me know! Questions and investigations of this kind seem peculiarly suited to, and answerable through, a three dimensional rendering of the shield. 3D scans recreate and share a small part of what is special about seeing museum objects in person—a feeling of engaging in an immersive, tactile experience.

The second scan, which shows only part of an adze of uncertain locality from Oceania registered as 1922.932, shows how we can approach an old problem in a new way. As is the case here, it is common to find pencil inscriptions written on museum objects by their first or early collectors; over time, these can become the only surviving record of an object’s origins. In this instance, the almost illegible handwriting on the adze’s shaft has become disproportionately significant because the adze is part of the much larger Widdicombe House collection at MAA, for which there remains almost no original documentation. 

The contents of Widdicombe House were acquired by the MAA in a series of purchases from 1921; they were sold to the museum by a descendant of the Dartmouth MP Arthur Howe Holdsworth, who originally amassed the collection. It was said at the time of purchase that a ‘Colonel Gordon’ had acquired the objects for Holdsworth during his travels in the mid-nineteenth century, but it has since been discovered that many of the objects date back much further—to the late eighteenth century voyages of James Cook. 

The task, then, has been to sort the objects acquired by Cook from those thought to have come to Widdicombe House later. This has been made harder by the difficulties encountered in identifying ‘Colonel Gordon’. The only clue has been the adze 1922.932 itself, which has the name ‘Admiral George Gordon’ written on its shaft. For decades, it has been assumed that the rest of the inscription says that Gordon brought his collection back to Britain in 1840 on a ship called ‘Queen’. Since no records of anyone named Gordon on a ship called ‘Queen’ have been found, the presumption has been that Gordon probably didn’t exist. 

A wooden axe with a small shaft.

Figure 4. A small shafted adze with the words ‘Brought Home Queen Pōmare’ illegibly inscribed on its shaft. Polynesia. Collected by Admiral George Gordon and donated by Dr. Louise Colville Gray Clarke. MAA 1922.932.

The 3D scan linked above allows us to do something that was nearly impossible before: source multiple opinions on what the inscription might say, without persuading a large crowd of people to traipse into the confined space of MAA’s stores. Since the inscription is written in tiny lettering on a curved and textured surface, it is hard to photograph in a conventional way: the pencil lead is only clear if it has caught the light, and due to the object’s curvature, it cannot all be illuminated at once. By contrast, the 3D scan creates an artificial state of affairs in which, through multiple careful photographs, all the lettering is simultaneously lit up as much as possible. The result is that the scanned inscription is far easier to read, and the way it is formatted over the curved surface is simpler to work out. Seen this way, the inscription may in fact read ‘Brought Home Queen Pōmare’, which would associate the object with the travels of Holdsworth’s friend George Thomas Gordon of the Cormorant, who assisted Queen Pōmare of Tahiti while in exile at Raiatea in 1844. Is the adze therefore from Tahiti, and associated with a notable historical figure, or is this another misconception? Readers are invited to pitch in. 

The scans of Z 29059 and 1922.932 demonstrate how fast and cheap 3D scanning can help to make museums more transparent and collaborative institutions, particularly with respect to explaining and reconciling controversies or uncertainties over the provenance of little-understood objects. I’ve given a few examples here related to my own recent research, but the main point I want to get across is the surprising ease and simplicity of creating these digital models. With a little experimentation, it’s exciting to think of what else could be done. 

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