Earlier this month, we released the first part of our interview with Thomas Flynn to learn about his past experiences and his thoughts on innovation in the museum setting. Here, we continue to chat with Tom to hear more about his thoughts specifically on 3D digitization in museums and what an institution can do with that 3D data. 

Do you see a lot of museums 3D digitizing their historical artifacts? What is the importance and what are the challenges of doing so? 

I see hundreds of museums digitizing in 3D right now, and more almost every day! It is fast becoming as common a practice as object photography.

Indeed, what better way to share a 3D object than in 3D.

In truth, many museums have been conducting 3D digitization in some way since the 80s (although not everyone has held on to the 3D data) and it’s only now with the advent of cheap, accessible, and easy-to-use AR, VR, WebGL etc. that people can share what they’ve done in its native form and not just a screen grab.

The importance of digitizing in 3D is in some ways the same as the importance of documenting an object via photography. You enhance the record of an artifact’s existence that can be referred back to by future generations. This is especially important for objects that are not on display in a physical museum — indeed, the majority of many museum collections are actually in off-site storage and only accessible via an (often clunky) online portal.

Digitizing in 3D literally preserves an object in a new dimension, to some extent, future proofing it’s existence in a way that was hitherto impossible.

What can be done with these 3D digital artifacts?

This is the most important and exciting part! While there are many considerations as to which digitization method a museum might use and what file formats they’re best off storing their data as, what’s really important is what you’re doing with that data once you have it.

Having made a digital replica, you are free to do all kinds of exciting things with that digital reflection. Artists and the members of the public can:

  • view it, download it, and remix it
  • researchers can contrast and compare objects from different collections
  • makers can 3D print it; museums can sell it (!)
  • museums can just keep the data and send the original back to its cultural owners (!!)

These are just some of the possibilities open to us now – in the future we might see even more innovative uses of 3D cultural heritage content.

What’s the future of AR/VR in museums and other on-site educational use?

Plenty of museums are already dipping their toes into the fairly uncharted waters of VR and AR — in London, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum have both hosted such experiences and there are plenty more examples if you run a quick web search. All these experiences are, at a basic level, about education — helping people understand what an object is, how it was used and what it meant to people then and means to people now.

While I don’t see these technologies replacing the day-to-day work museum educators do, they can help to put objects into a deeper context. This might be an AR experience that shows an object’s true scale (we had some fun with this at The Small Museum) or you might be able to pop on some VR goggles and see an object surrounded by it’s original environment (like this by Solius Heritage).

It’s interesting that this question focuses on these experiences ‘on-site’ at museums though. 

The value of these technologies allow audiences to enjoy a rich and engaging form of learning experience wherever they are, even if they can’t make it to a museum in person.

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of space for people to enjoy hi-tech learning while at the museum, but if you’re already in a museum you get to experience the awe of looking at the ‘real deal’ direct to your eyeballs.

The future of AR and VR in museums will be governed largely by how they help museum’s achieve their institutional goals and complement the current educational practices that staff (often with many years’ experience) have been developing and delivering.

For now, we’re in a period of tentative experimentation — it feels very much like we’ll see more and more examples of uses of AR and VR for education and good practice will rise to the top and be adopted for the longer term.

What advice do you have for museums from the work you have done in this space?

Start small, experiment, have fun with it, share your success stories but also failures and how you overcame them. The truth is that right now no-one is 100% sure of the value of large scale 3D — let alone AR and VR — with regard to the lofty challenge of heritage preservation and education. It’s a developing field waiting for you and your colleagues to demonstrate great ideas and innovative practice.

If you need to convince the “higher ups” to commit resources to a 3D/AR/VR project, I’ve always found that making a simple demo is often more effective than a written proposal. Know what you want to achieve with your work and create a minimum working version; if you lack the skills, get on the internet and learn, learn, learn.

With just your smartphone you can capture and publish 3D in AR or VR today.

Even if you’ve never made a 3D model in your life, it’s now incredibly easy to learn the basics of 3D digitisation and with platforms like Augment making publishing in AR quick and simple, what are you waiting for?

Follow Thomas on Twitter @nebulousflynn