The Etruscan Museum of Populonia to Conquer Sketchfab

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The Etruscan Museum of Populonia Gasparri Collection is a private institution, assembled in the 1940s, which mainly displays artifacts found in Baratti and Populonia (Piombino – LI, Tuscany) during the excavations carried out by the Archaeological Superintendence in the first half of the 20th century.

A Museum for (virtually) everybody

Back in 2015, the Gasparri family, who are still the owners of the archaeological collection, decided to sponsor the renovation of the Museum with two important goals: to improve its scientific and educational approach, with a brand new scientific director, and to reorganize the museum’s set-up and its spaces, which were redesigned by local architects. The idea behind the renewal was absolutely simple: to make the cultural heritage preserved in the museum available and accessible, also stimulating the visitors’ interest and giving easy access to information.

Based off of these assumptions, in 2016 the Etruscan Museum of Populonia started a digital tech project whose main goal was the reconstruction of ancient contexts through the 3D digitization of artifacts. The material was chosen to let a selection of exhibits out of the physical space of the museum, and most importantly to enhance the visitor experience. 

For us Sketchfab is the perfect virtual space to share the 3D models and to (virtually) reach a potentially unlimited audience. On one side, the artifacts’ digitization and their following virtualization on Sketchfab enables new vitality and visibility; on the other side visitors – real or virtual – can freely interact with the artifacts and improve their historical knowledge using new technological languages.

How do we choose the artifacts?

The items are chosen to give visibility to the artifacts that visitors perceive as most valuable, but most importantly to bring together all the scattered data and objects pertaining to a given archaeological context. The first group includes the so-called masterpieces of the collection, that is, those finds considered unique in their kind:

or particularly noteworthy with regards to either local craftsmanship:  

or Mediterranean imports of Etruscan and Roman period.

On the other side, a full understanding of local archaeological contexts must necessarily include both the grave goods preserved fully or partially in the museum, and the tombs, today in the Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia, where those grave goods were found. (fig. 1)

fig. 1

fig. 1

This is the most important innovation made possible also thanks to Sketchfab; to recreate the context in order to offer visitors an easy tool capable of putting an object back into its original historical/geographical context, when history or the needs of preservation have removed it, sometimes irreparably.

Rebuilding the context

In our vision Sketchfab collections are a great instrument to give visitors the possibility to have a deeper and more complete comprehension of the historic context. It is in fact hard, especially for non-archaeologists, to have a full perception of the story around the object stored in the museum and the archaeological area they come from.

We focused on two contexts close to one another in terms of chronology, location and history of excavation: the Tomba della Spirale d’oro per capelli (Tomb of the Gold Hair Spiral):

and the Tomba degli Aryballoi (Aryballoi Tomb):

The selected material has been digitized using digital photogrammetry. The pictures are taken shooting objects of small and medium dimensions placed on a circular turntable in order to catch their every side and angle; the DLSR camera is placed on a tripod in order to provide stability and maximize sharpness. Targets added to the shooting setup provide the software with reference information to determine the exact geometry of the object and, later, scale it down to its real dimensions. Images of bigger objects or museum artifacts that cannot be moved from their display location – such as the Etruscan sarcophagus lid or the tombs – are shot without tripod and targets are positioned all around the object.

The pictures are processed with Photoscan and if required the geometries are fixed with Meshlab, before providing the 3D model with the labels and the dynamic annotations that will guide the virtual visitor through the history of that artifact. The virtuality obtained with the 3D digital copy and its publication online reassigns to the archaeological items their importance as part of history and gives us the possibility to rebuild the original context to which they belong.

Future projects for the Etruscan Museum of Populonia

Archaeology is the scientific tool that recognizes and collects the material waste produced by ancient civilizations, now in museums all over the world, unraveling their history and the historical context that produced them. Virtual reality illuminates the potential of the objects providing interactive options to explore characteristics and history of that object: 3D modeling of archaeological artifacts allows a kind of slipping of the visitor’s perspective from object-centered to history-centered, which is what archaeology is supposed to do.

The next step in the Museum of Populonia project is to virtually recreate the context and the objects as single 3D models to let people experience first person their history. Virtual reality is in fact an invaluable tool to reconstruct reality and make it accessible to a wider public. Interpreting scattered data for narrative purposes should be the archaeologist job, and is a main mission of every museum in the world, which should preserve and communicate in some way their history.

Sketchfab is an invaluable tool to make accessible and available the history that is stored in the museum’s rooms, and virtual reality is a great way to do it.

Thanks Sketchfab team ;)!

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Seori Sachs

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