3D Scanning a Museum Fashion Collection

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(Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History/Courtney Lemon)

Sketchfab community member Abby Crawford is an expert in photogrammetry, a technique to reconstruct 3D models from photographs. She is the founder of the Cultural Heritage group in the Sketchfab community and writes about photogrammetry.

Her business, Archaeological Graphics, recently worked with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History to digitise part of their fashion collection.

Hidden behind closed doors in virtually every museum are storerooms full of objects that are awaiting display, resting from having been on display, or perhaps too fragile to put on display. In many instances museums might want to share certain objects with the public, but are limited by exhibit schedules and space availability. That’s where 3D technology and Sketchfab come in!

Tucked away on the third floor of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) in Santa Cruz, California is the museum’s collections storeroom. Just past the double doors the room is packed full of colorful paintings, hundred year-old handkerchiefs, complex early microscopes, sculptures made from bicycle wheels, and thousands of other unique and irreplaceable objects. Since the MAH is a small museum, only so many of these objects can be placed on display at any given time. One of the largest collections in the storeroom is comprised of 18th, 19th, and 20th century garments, donated over the years by dozens of Santa Cruz residents. These textiles are rarely seen, in part because textile exhibits can be difficult to organize, requiring just the right pieces of clothing and just the right mannequins. When textiles do go on display, however, they are always well-received by museum audiences. It was this conundrum that led Marla Novo, the Curator of Collections at the MAH, to propose that I digitize a selection of garments from the museum’s collection for display online.

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Trained as a Roman archaeologist, I have worked with artifact collections at museums in the United States, Canada, Portugal, and Greece. My love of history museums and familiarity with their storage and exhibit challenges was what originally led me to contact Marla at the MAH. It seemed to me that since the MAH is community-oriented and focused on experimentation, they might be excited to reach out to their audiences in new and innovative ways. I determined early on that Sketchfab was the ideal location to display the models because of its accessibility and ease of use. The models could be displayed as an exhibit-like collection and individual models could be embedded easily into websites.

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The benefits of establishing an online exhibit are several. Traditional brick-and-mortar museum exhibits require extensive resources – time, money, and people – and must be scheduled sometimes years in advance of the actual exhibit. When physical space is not an issue, scheduling becomes less of a concern, as does budgeting money for paint, labels, and props. An online exhibit can remain up for as long as the museum deems necessary, ensuring that the public has access to particular objects. And a 3D exhibit transcends the usual interactivity limitations of a physical exhibit by allowing its audience to look at objects in detail and manipulate them.

The garment digitization project began in November 2014 and to date has resulted in the production of 23 models. The garments range in date from the late 1700s to the 1970s. Most pieces are women’s clothing, although a couple of pieces of menswear also made it into the mix. Many of the pieces give glimpses into the personal lives of their owners and the role of Santa Cruz residents in local and world affairs.

Pink and green Spanish dress
by Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
on Sketchfab

This pink and green dress is of Spanish design and reflects the influence of Spain on this part of California during the late 18th century.

Cream-colored graduation gown
by Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
on Sketchfab

This dress made in the 1880s was a young woman’s high school graduation gown. In a time before disposable fashion the dress was later altered to reflect the newest styles (http://www.santacruzmah.org/2014/artifact-of-the-month-donuts-and-diplomas-eva-whinerys-graduation-dress-1896/).

Baseball uniform
by Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
on Sketchfab

This baseball uniform dates to the 1930s, a time when the country was in the Great Depression and sports served as a good diversion from rampant poverty and joblessness.

Army trenchcoat
by Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
on Sketchfab

This trench coat belonged to a woman who served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. This was the first war in which women were involved in the military as mechanics, switchboard operators, and non-medical support personnel (https://archive.org/details/gov.archives.arc.39012).

Sparkly gold dress
by Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
on Sketchfab

And this swanky ‘70s dress belonged to Lillian McPherson Rouse, whose grandfather was one of many who came to California in the 1850s. She herself was very involved in the Santa Cruz community and was a key player in establishing the MAH.

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(Dress decorated with anchovies. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History)

The MAH’s online gallery of textiles complements a brand new exhibit at the museum. On Friday, September 4 an exhibit entitled Uncommon Threads opened. The exhibit celebrates the 10th anniversary of fashionART, an annual Santa Cruz fashion show that features wearable art from local designers. The exhibit at the MAH showcases some of the most memorable designs from the past 10 years, as well as three pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. These three pieces were chosen by local designers as inspirations for their own creations designed specifically for the exhibit. This unusual green dress from the 1890s was one of the designer’s inspirations

Green and black dress
by Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
on Sketchfab

We hope to continue sharing more of both old and new outfits with you over the coming weeks!

About Abby Crawford

After more than a decade of working on excavations and in museums in North America and Europe, I completed my doctorate in Archaeology in 2014 and founded Archaeological Graphics, which provides photogrammetry and artifact illustration services to archaeologists, museums, and other heritage groups.

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