The Limits of Digitisation


Jeffery argues that virtual representation has merit in itself, but he also points out that there are limits and issues surrounding digitisation. “In the digital domain long-standing issues of data integration, discovery and long-term preservation have now begun to be tackled in a meaningful way.” (144) How we understand digitisation is important, and the purpose affects the process itself – depending on why we are digitising (or recording), the data associated may change and even how it is presented and to what standards are adhered to (which affect how it can be accessed and used by programs and people). Though Jeffery is talking specifically about digitisation as an indispensable tool for archaeology and other specific areas – this is a widely applicable point on the digital sciences overall. While computer sciences have come on a long way in a relatively short space of time, further review and development is still needed to resolve longstanding issues around the use of data. Technological limits on digitisation aside, there are still conceptual limits stemming from earlier issues around representation.

Automatic means of production supposed ‘objectivity’ separates this representation from the artistic processes previously required. While advancements in technology have furthered the scope of digitisation, many issues surrounding recording and representation have been discussed previously. “Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography.” (Bazin, 7) Due to this ‘objectivity’, there is a credibility implied of the representation of a “real” object. “Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from its thing to its reproduction” (Bazin, 8) The understanding of photography as storage of data, measurements and recordings of ‘real life’ is often extended to the digital world. However, just as Bazin experimented with manipulating this “reality” in film to display the creative vision of the director– digital technology can be used to manipulate data and representations according to the inputter, the choices they have made and the processes that they have followed to digitise and attach data. Digital technology has reached a point where it can be used to create new and virtual objects of unprecedentedly high quality, while this widens the scope of recording and digitisation it also brings up conceptual difficulties. It is difficult to say which category digitisation falls into as on one hand it connotes authenticity as recording of data, but on the other hand the capacity to for manipulation has ramifications for how we understand this recording or representation.

Semiotics have provided useful critical tools for examining the art and the object, interpreted according to subjectivities – and these concerns are also applicable to digitisation, and the collection of data which is ultimately a representation. One of the key distinctions is between the ‘signifier’ or representation and the ‘signified’- what it represents. “Context other words, is a text itself, and it thus consists of signs that require interpretation” (Bal and Bryson, 175) There are choices made about the information included alongside digitisation. The attachment of metadata to a digital object e.g. a photograph, allows its indexing and aids computer programs use of data attached to a file. Encoding data has its limitations, needing a structure that can be accessed and read. XML as a hierarchal coding language has become the industry standard, and is extendable – providing a basis for other coding languages that attach metadata to photos. It has the capacity to take in different types of data or signifying elements, but this also needs to be read or interpreted to make use of it necessitating standards. How information is attached to a digitised object and how it is presented, as well as how it can be used and accessed by computers and people. Standardised schemas like Dublin Core and VRA core are utilised in order to make metadata accessible and readable but though they are commonly used, these may not be the best schemas for encapsulating data depending on what is being digitised and why. A further consideration is that metadata needs to be attached the original object (or signified), but also the digitised image or scan and surrounding data (signifiers).



Bal, Mieke and Bryson, Norman “Semiotics and Art History”. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 2 (1991), pp. 174-208

Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” Trans. Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1960), pp. 4-9
“Film Theorist Andre Bazin” Web.
Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology, No. 1: (2015), pp. 144–152

The Museum and the Artifact in the Age of Digital Technology

Cronin discusses rules during an exhibition of bronze statues in the Getty museum preventing non-sanctioned photos and reproductions. These rules protect public domain works in an age where copies can be cheaply distributed online. “All of the bronzes in Power and Pathos are over 2000 years old, and none have ever enjoyed copyright protection.” (Cronin, 710) Beale and Perry investigate the impact of the social web on archaeological fields, which has provides a platform for a community to fill in gaps in knowledge but there are also threats: “Our applications of the social web have direct effects on users, our discipline, and ourselves; and, despite a wider failure to take account of the more negative of these effects, various archaeologists and cognate specialists have been pioneering ethically-committed, critically-aware approaches to online interactions which have the potential to reframe archaeology more generally.” (161)

Though technically almost any object could always be reproduced, advances in technology made this a much easier process. “Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.” (Benjamin, 217-218) For Benjamin, the reproducibility of art has implications: Reproducing the material object takes away from the uniqueness of art. Nowadays, photographs and data to recreate an object in 3D can be distributed relatively cheaply online. Suo J L, et al.  give an overview of computational photography, a broad term for multiple types of computer assisted photography for capturing visual data. This technology involves capturing data using imaging and scanners.  Making 3D copies previously required an expensive and labor intensive casting process. “It is fortuitous then, that 3D scan and print technologies have advanced swiftly in this era of hyper punctilious museum curators, because these developments make it possible to replicate without physical contact, three-dimensional works in many media.” (Cronin, 713) De Reu et al. investigate the cost effectiveness of such technologies. Chow and Chan discuss a technique to effectively reproduce ceramic objects. Dawson, Levy and Lyons explain other uses in the field of archaeology, including recreating missing pieces of objects. Photography can even be used to reconstruct 3 dimensional models of lost artifacts. “It is also possible through photogrammetry to create 3D digital models from two-dimensional images by manipulating digital data obtained from these images.” (Cronin, 714) Because these can be obtained by manipulating data, there is no contact with the original artefact required.

Weinberg highlights an issue around this technology: copyright can provide grounds for policing ownership when applicable but its definition emphasises uniqueness and creative vision rather than the work done to create the material object. Issues that emerged around photography are still the subject of debate today. “Originally, photographs were not eligible for copyright protection.” (Weinberg, 3) ‘Authorship’ was disputed on the basis that a photograph is captured using a machine that controls variables light reaching a sensor to record an image. While there is a distinction between photographs with artistic character and photographs aiming to capture reality: “This distinction – while clean in theory – was and is a bit messy to put into practice.” (Weinberg, 5) Advances in technology facilitate automated image generation and the digital scan which arguably requires skill, but not creative agency as a scan is collection of data (similar to a photo) – representing an original work. While expressive scans as artistic creations come under copyright, they are in the minority and there is not actual copyright protection for most other objects in museums despite efforts to mislead the public to try prevent reproduction.

3D Printer:

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Computer showing 3D data to be printed:20161014_141218


3D  printing:20161014_141329 20161014_141421 20161014_165903

Images above taken by Donal Ryan, the 3d printers and other subjects can be seen in the University of Limerick.


Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Modern Art and Modernism. Pp. 217-220. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.

Chow, Shu-Kam and Chan, Kwok-Leung. “Reconstruction of photorealistic 3D model of ceramic artefacts for interactive virtual exhibition” Journal of Cultural Heritage 10. 2009. Pp. 161–173. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.

Cronin, Charles. “Possession is 99% of the Law: 3D Printing, Public Domain Cultural Artifacts and Copyright.” Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. Vol. 17 No. 2, 2016. Pp. 709-736. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.

Dawson, Peter. Levy, Richard and Lyons, Natasha. “‘Breaking the fourth wall’: 3D virtual worlds as tools for knowledge repatriation in archaeology” Journal of Social Archaeology Vol. 11 No. 3, 2011, pp. 387–402. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.

Sara Perry, Nicole Beale. “The Social Web and Archaeology’s Restructuring: Impact, Exploitation, Disciplinary Change.” Open Archaeology 2015; 1, pp. 153–165. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.

De Reu, Jeroen.  Plets, Gertjan, Verhoeven, Geert , De Smedt, Philippe, Bats, Machteld, Cherretté, Bart, De Maeyer, Wouter,  Deconynck, Jasper, Herremans, Davy , Laloo, Pieter, Van Meirvenne, Marc and De Clercq, Wim “Towards a three-dimensional cost-e

ffective registration of the archaeological Heritage” a Journal of Archaeological Science 40, 2013. pp. 1108-1121. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.

SUO JinLi, JI XiangYang and DAI QiongHai. “An overview of computational photography” SCIENCE CHINA: Information Sciences. Vol. 55 No. 6, 2012. Pp. 1229–1248. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.

Weinberg, Micheal. “3D Scanning: A World without Copyright.” Shapeways. Pp. 1-16. Web. Date of Access: 16 Oct. 2016.