English Heritage’s Rachel Broomhead and Historic England’s Jon Bedford tell us about how they teamed up to share some of English Heritage’s vast collections in 3D.
English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites – from world-famous prehistoric sites to grand medieval castles, and from Roman forts on the edges of the empire to a Cold War bunker. Within our historic sites, museums and stores, we hold a collection of half a million artefacts, ranging from archaeological fragments to paintings by Turner and Rembrandt. Over the last 18 months, we’ve worked with the geospatial imaging team at Historic England – the public body that cares for England’s historic environment – to transform some of our objects into 3D digital form.
How We Got Into 3D Photography
Rachel Broomhead: I’m one of a team of four digital experts who sit within the Curatorial department of English Heritage. I started my role as a Digital Content Editor here two and a half years ago, following an early career in print journalism. One of the most exciting things about making the move into the digital world was having the opportunity to experiment with different forms, and exploring how digital technology can bring history to life in new and exciting ways.
Our team works closely with English Heritage’s curators and historians, which means we get privileged access to our vast collections – both those on display and those in store. We first started talking about 3D when the museum at Hailes Abbey was being re-displayed. The abbey was once one of the most important and spectacular places of worship in medieval England, but today it’s largely ruined and it’s hard to imagine the streams of pilgrims who travelled from all over the country to visit it. We knew that the best way to tell the story of the site was through its incredible collection, and 3D imaging seemed like a brilliant way to let people explore the objects in a more intimate way.
We were very lucky to work with Historic England, who already had a 3D imaging expert on board. Jon Bedford travelled down to one of our stores in Somerset from his base in York and spent three days with our curators and conservators taking images of some of the most significant objects. The result was a Sketchfab gallery of seven beautifully rendered objects.
How English Heritage Uses 3D
RB: Following that successful first foray into 3D imaging, we’ve since worked with Jon to produce two more galleries of objects from site-specific collections – for Corbridge Roman Town and The Wernher Collection at Ranger’s House. The level of detail Jon has been able to capture is superb and viewing the images on Sketchfab comes close to the experience of physically handling these precious items. Being able to rotate them, turn them upside down, and examine details in your own time is a privilege often only experienced by curators and conservators. That’s what we love about working in 3D – we can make our collections more tangible, more engaging and more accessible.
With our two most recent galleries we’ve experimented with using hotspots. From pointing out a piece of preserved leather on a bundle of Roman spears to explaining the intricate symbolism of a memento mori, the captions bring an expert’s eye to the object and add another ‘layer’ to the image.
RB: The memento mori pendant from Ranger’s House was a perfect object to capture in 3D. For us, it’s our personal favourite from all the historical 3D imagery we’ve seen so far! Designed to be rotated to reveal the fate that awaits us all after death, the pendant comes to life when viewed on Sketchfab. Users can turn it over in digital form, as the wearer would have done in medieval times, and explore its vivid and delicate carvings.
To explain how we captured our 3D images I’ll hand over to our imaging expert, Jon Bedford from Historic England…
Jon Bedford: We use a variety of methods and tools, as our 3D work covers a wide range of different subjects, from landscapes modelled from aerial photographs and lidar data, through standing buildings and structures down to some very small objects in the English Heritage collections. For the latter, we typically employ photogrammetry since the focus in the final disseminated products is primarily textural, but we also use structured light scanners for some objects, especially where the textures are relatively uniform and the geometry is complex.
For most of the photogrammetric work we use high quality DSLRs and turntables to semi-automate capture. We use control points to ensure models are accurately reconstructed and scaled. The images are pre-processed in Adobe Photoshop to ensure colour balance is correct and then passed through Agisoft Photoscan for initial model construction, leaving us with high and low resolution versions for analytical/3D print and web presentation purposes respectively. We’ll then typically tidy up the meshes in external software and bring them back into Photoscan for texturing. They’ll then go through final processing in 3D Studio Max before publication.
JB: The commonest problem was ‘hot-spotting’ on the more reflective objects when using lights. For the smaller objects, this is easily ameliorated by using light tents to ensure a relatively ‘flat’ ambient light.
The objects from the English Heritage collections are stored in a wide variety of places, some of which are more conducive to imaging work than others! Working in cold or cramped environments has become something we’ve got used to.
Controlling accurate colour rendition in differing circumstances can also be a challenge – we use grey cards and colour reference charts to help us with this.
Advice for Beginners
JB: Have fun! Try experimenting at home and enjoy the satisfaction of producing 3D models that you and others can enjoy. There’s a lot of reference and tutorial information out there, so beginners have plenty of opportunities to hone their skills and incorporate new elements to their workflows, much of it with free, open-source software. Spending money to get better equipment can help, but understanding the principles is the most important thing for getting good results consistently.
Jon photographing a 16th-century apothecary jar from the Wernher Collection at Ranger’s House
The Future of 3D in Heritage
RB: I believe 3D imaging will make the art of displaying collections more dynamic and multi-faceted. Museum visitors now have, quite literally, more angles from which to view collections. This doesn’t mean that traditional displays will be replaced, but they can be supported and enhanced with 3D imagery, whether that’s online or within a museum setting using digital displays. At English Heritage we’re also experimenting with printing 3D models from the imagery in order to let visitors handle replica objects and make the real thing more tangible. It’s clear that the potential for increased engagement with object collections through 3D imaging is huge.