Butler University is home to more than 100 artifacts and fine art pieces, including several three-dimensional works such as sculptures, jewelry, and clothing. Scattered across campus, some of these items fill display cases while others are stowed away for safekeeping. Many of the artifacts have been studied for educational purposes, providing visual examples for courses in art history or anthropology.
But the need to preserve objects that are hundreds of years old means most physical artifacts need to stay put in one place. Even if a piece is out on display, studying it closely means trekking a class of students across campus and crowding together to peer through the glass. And that’s just if you’re already on campus—a luxury not available to all who want to see the art up close, especially in a socially distanced world.
Over the last year, Butler Libraries and the Center for Academic Technology have teamed up to find a way to simultaneously protect these artifacts while making them more accessible to the community. The work was part of a project funded by a grant of more than $5,000 from the Private Academic Library Network of Indiana (PALNI), which supports collaboration between member schools.
The project was led by Olivia MacIsaac, Digital Scholarship Library Associate, and Kristen Allen, Academic Technology Specialist, who started by researching options for digitizing the art collections. They learned about a process called photogrammetry.
By stitching together a series of high-quality photos taken from all sides of each object, photogrammetry creates detailed digital replicas. The end products—which can now be accessed online in Butler’s Digital Collections—are like three-dimensional panorama images that can be rotated and viewed from any angle.
It’s not a new process, but it’s one that often carries a big price tag, requiring expensive camera equipment and computer software. So, as part of its goal to minimize financial pressures for small universities, PALNI charged the Butler team with finding a lower-cost workflow that can be applied at libraries across Indiana.
Thanks in large part to hours of work from Tatum Turner, a rising senior majoring in History and Anthropology, Butler has now created 3D digital objects of nearly 20 art pieces from its collections (though only the first 10 were part of the PALNI-funded project). The team succeeded in developing a low-cost scanning process, swapping pricey gadgets for free apps like Focos, which allowed them to capture detailed images using an iPad camera. Even with some larger purchases, including a high-powered graphics card, the team found a way to replicate their process for just over $2,000.
“This project has shown me that digital humanities is insanely experimental right now,” says Turner, who was responsible for taking photos and trying out new technologies. “The marriage of humanities and technology is something that is incredibly necessary for archival purposes and future generations, as more things can’t withstand the test of time. It also makes things more accessible.”
Now, this low-cost, sustainable solution can be shared with other private universities throughout the state. After streamlining their own workflow, the Butler team created a Canvas training course that others can use to replicate the process.
“Creating 3D objects often seems daunting to librarians with physical collections,” MacIsaac says. “I’m hoping once they learn about the benefits of photogrammetry and the details you can capture with it, this will be a method they can use regularly instead of some of the other methods that cost a lot more money or require more expertise. I hope this empowers other schools to do this kind of work.”
The free online course, which anyone can request access to use, starts by walking students through the equipment and techniques they’ll need to create their own 3D digital objects. Users then learn how to edit the photos of their artifact, adjusting the lighting and removing the background before using 3D imaging software to build the digital replica. To wrap things up, the course shows users how to finalize their 3D models and record all necessary data, choosing the best online platform where the digitized artifacts can be stored and accessed.
“I’ve been really excited to already see the impact of the educational component we created, and that we will be able to partner with faculty and make this available to Butler students,” Allen says.
“This technology and this method has been used for years,” MacIsaac adds, “but it’s just now becoming a standard skill that’s needed in fields like archaeology. This is more important than ever as artifacts are destroyed or lost. We need to capture this information while we can, so developing these skills is really important.”
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