As part of my MA in Digital Humanities, I’m doing a Practicum with National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology. The project has three deliverables: digitisation of at least 6 objects chosen by the Museum supervisor, desk research into current digitization practices in other European Museums and finally, writing a ‘step-by-step’ white paper that would help the Museum staff undertake the digitization themselves and possibly, include it in the future standard practices of objects acquisition. The objectives are clear and achievable in the 3,5 months time frame given for the project. What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to have a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes side of the museum and learning how to work on a project like this – celebrating little victories and tackling the obstacles as they come along. Structure from motion technique can be a very rewarding method when done right.
Although it is not difficult to guess that I have a personal interest in successful completion of the project, I would like to see it go beyond a mare MA assessment. This Practicum isn’t the first step that National Museum of Ireland took towards joining other European institutions in attempts to merge the digital analogue, but it might help in achieving this goal. The shift towards becoming the ‘Museum of the Future’ is slow and often unsuccessful, however I would risk a statement that there is a growing need to incorporate technological solutions into more traditional exhibitions. The white paper hopefully will help the current museum employees not only to learn the basics of photogrammetry, but to get more comfortable with digitisation of heritage artifacts and see their full potential. Sadly, many cultural heritage institutions which attempted digitisation abandoned the practice after creating only one batch of models.
The first project, similar to this practicum and on much larger scale, was already undertaken by the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) back in 2003. Alongside other European institutions, such as the Neanderthal Museum in Germany, National Museums of Scotland or Alicante Archaeological Museum, the NMI participated in the European Network initiative: the ORION Project which aimed at exploring the achievements of technology that could digitize museum’s acquisitions (the method they used was 3D laser scanning), but more importantly it wanted to establish international network of institutions, academics and curators who would build local digital collections connected on an international level. NMI seemed to be very happy with their participation in “Digitisation in Depth” project, yet lack of any further involvement is slightly worrying if digitisation is to become an integral part of museum’s procedure.
The first step of my desk research was to see which European Museums have an active Sketchfab account – Sketchfab being probably the easiest online platform for displaying 3D models. The unchallenged leader is the British Museum, which uploads new models every couple of days – all of them of the highest quality and some even available for free to download. The frequency of the uploads is most likely the benefactor of the fact that some of the models are a work of other institutions who co-operate with the Museum. I was quite surprised to stumble upon a Polish initiative called “Malopolska’s Virtual Museum” which digitizes acquisitions form many museums of this region. Although they do not upload models as often as the British Museum, there are new objects available every couple of weeks and the project keeps on consequently expanding since December 2015.
Sadly, majority of the accounts seem to be long abandoned since the digitising ‘boom’ that seem to happen among the institutions between 2014-2016. A lot of the profiles belonging to the museums appear to be created to host a short, singular project and left to be ‘ghost’ profiles afterwards, which is yet another proof that cultural heritage institutions need to re-consider their approach to new technology and find a way to accommodate it. This, in all honesty, is my biggest worry about the Practicum – that it will become another ‘ghost’ project. That is if the NMI will decide to make their online presence visible and create a Sketchfab account, which might be a challenge in itself due to current lack of procedures relating to digitised artifacts. For this reason, although it appears that producing 3D models is the main aim of the Practicum, it seems like the ‘Guide to in-house digitisation’ might be yet the most valuable deliverable. If the curators of NMI get familiar with photogrammetry – or even if NMI and the Digital Humanities establish long-lasting co-operation in the matter – I believe that it is possible to create and populate digital platform with 3D models of museum’s acquisitions. And in time, this could contribute to the way objects of cultural importance are present beyond the walls of National Museum of Ireland.