art institute of chicago

Cultural Heritage Spotlight: Art Institute of Chicago

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As increased screen time has become a norm in the world of Covid, seeing our co-workers, family, and friends in 2D on the screen has become the status quo, making interactions in 3D a novel experience!

3D at the Art Institute

At the Art Institute of Chicago, we’ve been thinking about 3D for a long time. Founded in 1879, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s major museums, housing an extraordinary collection of objects from across places, cultures, and time. In the Fall of 2020, we posted an article in our online magazine, embedding 3D versions of objects from the collection into our website for the first time.

Developed in collaboration with agency AREA 17, the Art Institute’s implementation of 3D is a unique one. Inspired by the New York Times, the museum leveraged Sketchfab’s API to seamlessly embed 3D objects that animate and display annotations as you scroll down the page. Models are uploaded, refined, and finally, annotations are added and set to different perspectives of the object. Once ready, we simply enter the model’s URL into’s website CMS, thus rendering an interactive tour of the 3D object on a webpage.


Importing object information from Sketchfab, the model and its annotations are transformed into the website using the Art Institute’s design conventions. While reading an article, a model responds to your scroll—turning, flipping over, and zooming in on the details so you don’t miss a thing. A more traditional embed is also available thereby giving website users an opportunity to freely explore the object.


Looking Towards the Future

The museum’s initial exploration and execution of 3D was an exciting endeavor. The potential for using 3D as a new storytelling tool for our collection is great, not to mention the opportunities that 3D preservation presents, as we’ve seen through sites like Sketchfab and Google Arts & Culture’s Open Heritage project. The fact that an object can be intimately studied from across the world by an art historian or introduced virtually to a classroom is just mind-blowing. You could even take it a step further and hold a replica in your hand thanks to advancements in 3D printers. Let’s not forget, too, that virtual and augmented reality bring a whole realm of possibilities for engagement, from experiencing an ancient ruin while standing where it stood 2,000 years ago to posting a pic of a masterpiece hanging in your apartment on Instagram.


Fun with 3D in AR

For these reasons and many more, the Art Institute’s mission to grow our collection of 3D objects is becoming a top priority. It’s no small feat as Jonathan Mathias, Senior Photographer at the museum, describes the photogrammetry process—it can take up to two weeks to shoot and process one artwork into a viable model, in addition to the careful planning to guarantee the safety of the art. With high demand on our Imaging team, it’s a challenge to find the time and resources needed to output 3D models in a time of constant digital consumption.


Processing with Metashape

Having recently been awarded a grant to help with our digital initiatives, we are back to work on figuring out how to produce 3D models at an optimal pace. Our teams are looking at possibilities around rapid 3D imaging and interested in experimenting with new technologies like the iPhone 12 Pro’s LiDAR sensor. In addition, we’re taking a closer look at our current processes, talking to peer institutions, and working to figure out how to produce an efficient and optimized model to be delivered over the web to a desktop computer or a mobile phone.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of work to be done and so many possibilities. We can’t wait to see how things shape up as we learn in the days ahead. Stay tuned for part 2!

About the author

Tina Shah

Tina is a Senior Developer in the Experience Design department at the Art Institute of Chicago. She spends her time supporting web, in-gallery and mobile applications promoting engagement between users and the museum’s collection.

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