USF's Museum Blog

Preserving Cultural Heritage – Digitally!

By Reid McConnell

Editor’s note: Reid McConnell ’15 graduated from USF with a B.A. in Art History/Arts Management. He wrote this essay for Professor Kate Lusheck’s undergraduate Museum Studies class in spring 2015.

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Reid McConnell ’15 examines a print in a more traditional way at the Achenbach Center for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

This past year has seen a horrendous increase in the willful destruction of artifacts of our cultural heritage. These include ancient Assyrian lamassu sculptures in Iraq and just recently, the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyria (Syria) by ISIS. Unfortunately though, destruction of works of cultural heritage by religious militants is only part of the problem. Natural disasters, accidents, and neglect cause irreparable damage to numerous works of art and architecture each year. Luckily though, with the advent of digital imaging techniques, art conservators are now able to preserve and display antiquities in a very futuristic way.

Polynomial texture mapping, more commonly referred to as Reflective Transformation Imaging, or RTI, provides one way to preserve and document works in the digital realm. Using a camera and a lighting rig, researchers have been able to produce game-changing digital renderings of everyday objects. The goal is not just to create a digital model, however. RTI also allows students, researchers, and conservators to easily see surface details on artifacts otherwise invisible to the human eye.

It works like this: an object is first placed on a flat, clean surface. A photographer then shoots the object with a digital camera multiple times from the same vantage point. In each photo, however, the object is illuminated from a different perspective. These images are then loaded into open-source software, called RTIBuilder, where the lighting information is passed through algorithmic processing. The results can be stunning: a digital image of the object in the round, in which researchers also gain complete control of the lighting conditions of the object. With a single movement of a mouse, it is possible to spin and swivel the “light” being cast on the digital “object,” allowing conservators to better see the surface details of the object, including some that might otherwise escape the naked eye.

Museum conservators, curators, and collections managers are beginning to take notice of the research potential of this open-source software. For example, this technique has allowed researchers at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents in Oxford, England to uncover a wealth of previously unknown information about the so-called Vindolanda tablets. Thanks to a team put together by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, researchers can now read the writing of the great Greek mathematician Archimedes—even though the vellum had been scraped and repurposed as a prayer book in the 13th century. Many museum conservators and curators at museums increasingly believe that RTI also holds the potential to change even the way researchers analyze brushstrokes on a painting. In short, this digital method is more efficient in capturing and mapping an object’s surface appearance than photographing a work in raking light.

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Photograph courtesy of Cultural Heritage Imaging, San Francisco.

What does this technology also have to do with preventing the wholesale destruction of artifacts though? To understand this, one must view RTI as only one method in a long line of emerging technologies related to digital imaging. For example, the team at the non-profit Cultural Heritage Imaging in San Francisco, works with a cutting-edge technique related to RTI called Photogrammetry. This digital process allows Cultural Heritage Imaging to convert “flat” digital photos of an object into high-resolution, three-dimensional digital. The more photographs that are taken of the object, the more researchers are able to achieve higher levels of detail in the resulting digital model.

This technology means that anyone with a DSLR camera, the open-source software, and a basic understanding of the procedure can digitally immortalize an artifact in less than an hour. When one considers the advances made by Photogrammetry, coupled with exciting developments in 3D printing and high-definition, digital photography, the possibilities for conserving and mapping works digitally seem incredibly exciting.

While it is tragic that we may not be able to stop every natural disaster or idol-smasher bent on the destruction of cultural heritage, we can now increasingly document and conserve important human creations in other, more futuristic ways. After all, while an accurate, 3D model of an ancient Assyrian lamassu is not the original, it may be better than no lamassu at all.

For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.

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