animating antiquity miami

Art History in 3D at the University of Miami

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Explorations in Digital Art History

In this story, we discuss how our explorations in visualizing historical artworks transformed two Art History undergraduate courses and invited further interdisciplinary collaborations across the University of Miami.

Dr. Karen Mathews (KM): I began using 3D models in my research and teaching at the University of Miami (UM) in 2015, beginning with architectural models. As an architectural historian, I was always looking for richer and more immersive ways to interact with historical architecture and show its spatial dimension. I collaborated with colleagues at the University of Miami in using photogrammetry for the creation of 3D architectural models of historical structures in the city of Coral Gables [see the article we published in JITP 12 (2018)], and I thought that the technology could be applied fruitfully to small-scale artworks as well. As part of a Faculty Learning Community cohort in 2017, I teamed with Gemma Henderson, Senior Instructional Designer in Academic Technologies, to incorporate the use of 3D models into art history courses. Together, in courses addressing Spanish Colonial art and the art of ancient Greece and Rome, we have completed two modeling projects with students that have great applicability for the study and preservation of cultural heritage. Our most recent course collaboration was in an ancient art course entitled Animating Antiquity. In this class, students employed a number of digital technologies to animate the antiquities in the Lowe Art Museum of the University of Miami. They first created 3D digital models that they uploaded onto Sketchfab with annotations. They used these models to make 3D prints that formed part of interactive activities in the museum galleries that connected the museum visitor, original artwork, and printed model. The students also presented the research conducted on the Lowe objects on a website that can be accessed in the museum through tablets mounted in the Antiquities Gallery. This art historical research adds yet another layer of content about and interaction with artworks from the ancient world.

animating antiquity figurine

Spanish Art. (Left) La Virgen de Guadalupe and (Right) St. Thomas

Gemma Henderson (GH): Since I joined UM in 2016, I have focused my efforts on connecting educational resources across the institution with 3D technologies in collaboration with UM Libraries’ Creative Studio. In Spring 2017, I led a faculty learning community (FLC) on ‘3D Printing, Scanning and Visualization.’ Throughout the six sessions, four faculty fellows explored approaches to enrich their undergraduate courses, actively engaging with guest speakers, experimenting with technologies and developing innovative teaching practices. Based on their interests, faculty investigated ways to 3D print and scan historical and modern artworks, employ 360-spherical videos in theatre design and production, and 3D print body parts for anesthesia simulation (with some found on Sketchfab!). This FLC launched my partnership with Dr. Mathews and exploration of 3D technologies within the undergraduate curricula at UM. For a Spring 2018 course, Spanish Art (ARH270S), we modified an existing group-based, digital dossier research project on Spanish Colonial objects from the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum. In addition to the art-historical research throughout the semester, students were invited to employ photogrammetry and modeling techniques to capture and recreate an object into a 3D digital object and host it on Sketchfab for viewing on the course website. The preparation for this project shaped the focus of my MSc in Digital Education dissertation topic—Exploring the meanings of 3D digital heritage objects in undergraduate education—examining how and why these models are employed within educational practice. I’ve since led two additional faculty learning communities on 3D technologies in the undergraduate curricula and collaborated with Dr. Mathews on multiple course projects, including the Animating Antiquity project.

KM: These two projects have opened up a new world and demonstrated how great the potential is for using 3D in cultural heritage studies. The 3D components of these projects encouraged student engagement through the use of technology and they helped students hone research skills in their analysis of historical objects. The 3D models could be embedded into larger historical narratives presented in a website that can be accessed remotely or in the museum gallery itself. 3D models can enhance visitor engagement in the museum as visitors can manipulate the models on a smart device and create a dialogue between the original artwork and its digital model. Museum-goers have a more dynamic and activated experience with artworks, inspiring curiosity and play. 3D technologies bridge the divide between the present and the past as we use new technologies to study old objects. They forge connections between people and objects, but those connections extend to the people in the past who used and owned the objects. We enliven history this way, highlighting the importance of preserving and studying artifacts with the use of these new digital tools. Throughout the Animating Antiquity project, funded by a CREATE grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, students had the opportunity to engage in practical, hands-on work, combining historical research with digital technologies to share and produce knowledge related to cultural heritage preservation. Students actively worked to animate objects from the distant past, recontextualizing them and bring them to life for contemporary museum visitors.

animating antiquity krater bust

Navigating 3D Workflows for Undergraduate Education

GH: By the time art history students take the ‘Spanish Art’ and ‘Animating Antiquity’ courses, they have had some experience with studio-based photography and art historical research, but hardly any exposure to 3D modeling. When initially researching technical approaches that aligned with the existing assignment outcomes, abilities and equipment available to art history students, we discovered that there were few resources and studies on similar undergraduate projects. I initially tested out different free photogrammetry applications and processes (3D Zephyr, Autodesk ReMake, Trnio) and ended up reaching out to Thomas Flynn at Sketchfab who provided a wealth of technical and educational resources to guide the direction of this project.

Dr. Mathews and I developed and tested a series of learning exercises and resources involving:

  1. a photogrammetry ‘field trip’ to the Lowe Art Museum,
  2. a photo-editing session using Adobe Lightroom Classic,
  3. photogrammetric processing using Autodesk ReMake,
  4. 3D scan clean-up and modeling sessions using Autodesk Meshmixer,
  5. hosting and annotating models on Sketchfab.

We selected eight art objects that were applicable and simple to process (avoiding large objects and reflective objects), and used low-cost or existing equipment from the Creative Studio (DSLR Canon Rebel cameras, tripods, portable Fotodiox photo studio-kits, manual turntables and an automated turntable). During a 75-minute photogrammetry ‘field trip,’ we assembled four photogrammetry stations for eight students (two representing each group) and assigned roles of ‘object handler’ and ‘camera operator.’ Once objects were placed by museum staff on turntables, camera operators prepared and tested camera settings (including shifting the tripod angle) based on our recommendations, while object handlers rotated the object at 15-degree intervals for multiple loops around and above the objects. Once complete, students removed their SD cards and uploaded all .crz and .jpg files to a shared Google Drive folder for editing. The following sessions guided students through hands-on exercises around editing photos using Adobe Lightroom Classic, importing their edited photos into Autodesk ReMake, and then exporting the .obj and texture files into Autodesk Meshmixer for final 3D scan cleanup. When Sketchfab was used, students followed the recommendations available in the Sketchfab Help Center before uploading and explored different modes to augment the object, using audio, annotations and descriptions. An unpredicted outcome occurred when students requested the opportunity to 3D print their models after uploading them on Sketchfab. After providing a quick exercise to prepare the models, we printed the models for their presentation, an instrumental outcome that shaped the Animating Antiquity project.

animating antiquity students

For the Animating Antiquity course and student-generated curatorial project, the learning exercises followed a similar process and were adapted according to:

  • larger objects and vessels,
  • discontinuation of Autodesk ReMake,
  • 3D printing and painting of objects,
  • partnerships with other groups.

First, due to size, scale, and age of the objects, larger studio tents and soft-box lighting equipment were needed during the field trip, and additional museum staff assisted because of the fragility and scale of objects. We also assigned photo editing as a homework assignment based on student expertise, sharing handout guidance and examples. After Autodesk ReMake was discontinued, we managed the photogrammetric processing ourselves using an educational license for Autodesk Recap Pro Photo. 3D printing became integral to the editing of the 3D models – the first round of editing the 3D models was followed by ‘draft’ small 3D prints using Art and Art History Department 3D printers, so that students could handle, inspect, and envision elements to edit and paint during later sessions. To allow students to focus on augmenting the Sketchfab models, we prepared and uploaded models.

Future of 3D Digital Heritage

KM: I would strongly encourage colleagues in the field of visual culture to include 3D tools in their research and teaching. There are numerous tools for image capture (some of which are free) and the skills one gains in the creation of 3D models will prove deeply important for cultural heritage studies in the years to come. I think that these technologies can revolutionize the field as they offer myriad possibilities for presenting material to audiences to educate and advocate. In our recent project modeling antiquities in the Lowe Art Museum, the digital models were embedded into art historical research essays, were used in AR applications, were printed to allow museum visitors to interact with the prints in the gallery, and were featured in a VR experience. 3D technologies can enhance a viewer’s interaction with an object, can recreate lost or imperiled cultural objects or sites (the Cathedral of Notre-Dame being a notable recent example) and can forge connections to the past in ways that we would never have thought possible. The potential of these technologies to raise awareness about the past and its cultural treasures can only grow in the hands of talented people committed to safeguarding this heritage for future generations.

Our Favourites

KM: I love looking at the architectural models, so that I can see how others are making distant structures and sites accessible to a larger number of viewers. I think that my favorite model, however, is one of a granite sculpture of the Goddess Sekhmet in the British Museum. This was one of the first models I viewed when I was introduced to the Sketchfab site several years ago, and I was amazed at the quality of the model, the crispness and precision of it, down to the crystalline structure of the Aswan granite! It impressed upon me the great potential for the use of 3D models in cultural heritage studies and preservation, and inspired me to incorporate 3D modeling into my coursework.

GH: For me, the British Museum’s medieval pilgrim souvenirs and secular badges, highlights the value of using 3D digital heritage for higher education. Amy Jeffs’ Conversation Piece calls attention to how the models remove physical barriers to objects, transforms our perceptions of scale and reveals hidden collections. A model designed by Thomas Flynn has also proved instrumental to share with students and others the process of photogrammetry.

Photography credits to TJ Lievonen, Digital Marketing Specialist, University of Miami.


About the author

Dr. Karen Mathews and Gemma Henderson

Dr. Karen Mathews is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami. Gemma Henderson is a Sr. Instructional Designer, in the Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement team at the University of Miami. @gemdemhen

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