Over the past several years, the Visual Resources Center (VRC), a lab within the Department of Art & Art History at the University of New Hampshire, has been exploring the use of 3D technologies in the study and teaching of art and art history. This has been a collaborative effort led by our Visual Resources Librarian, Otto Luna, alongside art history professor Ivo van der Graaff. 3D technologies—including photogrammetry and modeling with SketchUp—have been incorporated into several art history undergraduate courses with the aim of introducing students to some of the latest technologies being employed in the study and documentation of cultural heritage material. The courses also introduce students to techniques of replication, such as 3D printing, as well as avenues for dissemination of research and knowledge, including Augmented and Virtual Reality.
From Digging to Digital
We first introduced photogrammetry in Spring 2018 in a course titled “From Digging to Digital: Preserving and Displaying the Past.” As part of a semester-long project, students in the class selected an object of inquiry from the UNH Museum of Art. In addition to conducting art historical research on the artifact, students were also tasked with creating an accurate 3D model of the object via photogrammetry. We prepared a series of hands-on workshops designed to give students practical experience in the photogrammetric process. Over the course of the semester, students progressed through the photogrammetry workflow, as shown in the diagram below:
As a final step, students uploaded their models to Sketchfab and 3D printed replicas of their artifacts. Students also created websites as a means of sharing their research and 3D models with the general public. Overall, students came away with positive impressions of the photogrammetry technique, noting that while the process is “time consuming” it is “well worth it in the end.” Students were delighted by the level of detail they were able to capture in their virtual models. They noted the many benefits that 3D models bring to the study of cultural heritage materials, including the importance of documentation and the potential to replicate the objects through various techniques, such as 3D printing and milling, if they are damaged or lost.
3D modeling in the art history classroom
For a course on Roman art and architecture taught by Prof. van der Graaff, we developed a 3D modeling project using SketchUp. After a series of hands-on workshops meant to introduce the software, students were asked to create a digital model of an ancient Roman house. They used data supplied by the Oplontis Project, which studies a UNESCO world heritage site that preserves the ruins of a small settlement and an imperial luxury villa buried by Vesuvius in 79 CE. Students created their models based on the available archaeological data, including floor plans and diagrams with detailed measurements, photographs, and comparisons with similar structures of the time. They successfully created accurately scaled digital reconstructions of the building. In the process, they not only learned SketchUp but also how to analyze and understand archaeological data. More importantly, the process of 3D modeling and then 3D printing the building encouraged students to study the architectural features in detail. It also pushed them to think about how 3D models can facilitate virtual visits to archaeological sites as well as replicate them in case of future damage or looting.
We use Sketchfab to share the wonderful 3D work our students have accomplished over the past few years as well as disseminate the research that they conduct on artifacts and ancient architecture. Students enjoy fine-tuning the display of their models with Sketchfab’s built-in editing tools. The annotations tool has been particularly useful as it enables students to provide additional information about their objects of study.
One of our favorite models on Sketchfab is the Arena Chapel created by Matthew Brennan. What an amazing technological feat! We showed our students the model using VR headsets and they were absolutely blown away by the level of detail and compelling experience of the space.
Gazing into the Future
We believe 3D imagery is fundamentally changing the way art history is being studied and taught, and cultural heritage is documented and disseminated. We’re excited for the future, particularly as rapidly advancing technologies make it easier to scan and replicate cultural heritage material. We are just beginning to experiment, for instance, with the scanning capabilities of the new iPad Pro with LiDAR. We’re also very enthusiastic about the potential of immersive visualization technologies (AR/VR) in cultural heritage studies.
Otto Luna is the Visual Resources Librarian at the University of New Hampshire. He directs the Visual Resources Center, a digital lab and maker-space within the Department of Art & Art History. His work explores the use of 3D technologies and other digital tools in the study and teaching of the visual arts and cultural heritage.
Ivo van der Graaff is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of New Hampshire. He earned his PhD in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin, with a focus on Greek and Roman art and architecture. He co-directs and collaborates on projects examining the ancient Bay of Naples and Etruria. Among his main interests are urbanism and the development of group identities in the ancient world with a focus on Pompeii and the Italian peninsula.