Cultural Heritage Spotlight: Can’t judge a book by its cover? Perhaps you can!

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Our Cultural institutions Page highlights our ongoing support of museums and cultural institutions with free accounts and access to tools. In Cultural Heritage Spotlight, we’ll explore museums and cultural institutions who are using 3D technology to bring new life to their collections. Today’s blog post features the British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom and the largest library in the world by number of items catalogued.

If you look at how museums choose to digitally engage with their audiences, especially in the past few years, it is evident that 3D technologies have become standard practice within their larger digital outreach. There is an increasing tendency to utilise 3D models and prints to enhance online resources featuring collection items, or as exhibition materials in galleries. Some museums still have limited experience of utilising 3D technologies, while others do it on a large-scale and on a regular basis. Overall, the 3D trend has already had a great impact on the cultural heritage sector as a whole. However, while a museum is more of a usual suspect for these novel technologies, libraries are perhaps less so. They are perceived to hold books, manuscripts, documents, or in short – compilations of two-dimensional text. But nothing physical that a library holds is in fact two-dimensional, and some items kept in libraries may be of unanticipated nature. Libraries have more potential to engage with 3D modelling and printing than one would expect.

FIG 1: Pentateuch from Italy, dated to 1486 CE (British Library Add MS 4709)

3D technologies used in the cultural sector have many benefits. 3D models and prints can be supplemental tools for visualisation, enhancing the experience of viewing an object. They can be used in physical as well as virtual exhibitions online, as well as enhance a 2D collection catalogue hosted online or feature in other online content. In this way, curators and educators can use 3D data to tell a story, online visitors can explore the collections in a new and stimulating way, and there is a potential to engage the larger, international public. 3D prints can be displayed at touring locations, used in education systems as sustainable objects for teaching and training (instead of the real items), and used as event giveaways. There is also a commercial potential for prints, as replicas of objects can be sold, full scale or in miniature and in different materials and colours. In short, 3D technologies change how people access and engage with cultural resources.

FIG 2: Silk mantle (textile cover) for a Torah scroll, date unknown (British Library Or 13027)

All this is hardly news for the museum sector. What’s innovative here is that the British Library is joining the game too. It makes perfect sense for such a large library to re-examine its traditional approach to the delivery of information and to keep seeking novel means of public and scholarly engagement – especially in light of the huge variety of items it holds. Aside from the more predictable formats (books, newspapers, documents, maps), the Library’s physical collection spans from inscribed bones, seals, scrolls, wooden cases, fine textiles, and folding books with covers embellished with gold and jewels, to wooden cabinets, chests, ship models and even rifles! Some collection items such as manuscript chests cannot be called up by readers from the Library’s basement – they are too heavy and too fragile. And as most of the Library’s collection items are not on display in one of its galleries, 3D digitisation affords the opportunity to bring these items into the virtual light.

FIG 3: Inscribed oracle bone, dating to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BCE; British Library Or 7694/1595)

In the past year I’ve been involved in creating several 3D models for two British Library projects: the Hebrew Manuscripts and the Oracle Bones digitisation projects. The former digitised 1,300 Hebrew manuscripts – codices (manuscripts in book format), scrolls, charters and loose folios spanning 1,000 years from the 10th to the 20th century CE, mainly from Europe and the Middle East. This rare collection of manuscripts represents all the areas of Jewish knowledge, whether religious or secular. The latter project digitised more than 480 Chinese ‘oracle bones’, dating between 1600 and 1050 BCE (Shang Dynasty). These are the oldest objects in the Library, including mainly shoulder animal bones and some tortoise shells’ fragments, bearing the earliest known examples of Chinese writing. Used in divination rituals, the bones were inscribed with questions posed to ancestors, the answers to which were interpreted from cracks formed in the bones when heated. The digitised Hebrew manuscripts and oracle bones can be viewed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

British Library conservator Karen Bradford stabilising an oracle bone in a foam stand before imaging

FIG 4: British Library conservator Karen Bradford stabilising an oracle bone in a foam stand before imaging

The method that we use for 3D modelling at the Library is photogrammetry – creating a 3D structure from a series of overlapping 2D images. Before the imaging started, the items were called up from the Library’s storage facility, which closely monitors temperature and humidity levels. We benefited from the Imaging Studio’s advanced photography and lighting equipment and our only further investment in equipment was a £6 turntable. In the case of the oracle bones, which are mostly rather flat objects, conservator Karen Bradford created stands for them to be placed on securely, in a way that would allow for optimised photo capture but also protect the bones. Karen was present throughout the imaging process, to make sure the bones were safely handled.

British Library senior imaging technician Neil McCowlen imaging oracle bone Or 7694/1595

FIG 5: British Library senior imaging technician Neil McCowlen imaging oracle bone Or 7694/1595

The imaging process began with taking photographs of each item from different angles, with sufficient overlap. In order to do that, each object was placed on a turntable and the camera was mounted on a tripod. We rotated the turntable at roughly 5-10 degrees with a photo taken at each position. After completing a 360-degree circle in at least one elevation level, the item was turned to its reverse side and the process was repeated. Once enough photos had been taken, the images were white balanced and then masked ready for the modelling process in Agisoft PhotoScan. When the models were complete, they were published to Sketchfab. The oracle bones were also printed by the 3D expert ThinkSee3D, who made sure the Chinese writing remains as legible as possible.

Neil made sure the bones were in focus and the script was sharp and clear

FIG 6: Neil made sure the bones were in focus and the script was sharp and clear

ThinkSee3D founder Steven Dey holding the print of oracle bone Or 7694/1595

FIG 7: ThinkSee3D founder Steven Dey holding the print of oracle bone Or 7694/1595

3D modelling at the British Library is still in its early stages, but the potential is immense. It suffices to make your way to Asian and African Studies on the third floor in the British Library building at St Pancras, and look at the current exhibition outside of the Reading Room, called ‘More than a Book’. Southeast Asian manuscripts come in different shapes and forms, such 19th-century wooden or bamboo Thai title indicators, which helped identify and retrieve manuscripts stored in large numbers in wooden cabinets in temple libraries (see for example Or 16555). Thai manuscripts were stored in boxes, chests or cabinets placed in Buddhist temple libraries or in palaces, and often decorated in red and gold and carved with beautiful designs. The Library holds six such magnificent items from the 19th century, some of which are displayed inside and outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and others – in the basement (e.g. Foster 1057 – weighing over half a ton!).

19th century Northern Thai manuscript wooden box, decorated with gilt and lacquer (Foster 1056), displayed in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room

FIG 8: 19th century Northern Thai manuscript wooden box, decorated with gilt and lacquer (Foster 1056), displayed in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room

Some of the British Library’s most famous and unique items which would be wonderful to view in 3D include Elizabeth I prayer book, a rare item with its original 16th-century binding and embroidery, and the 8th-century St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book. I’m very hopeful that the existing models and prints will inspire an increased use of 3D technologies at the British Library as well as other libraries worldwide.

Thanks for sharing, Adi!

This blog post was adapted from a blog originally posted on the Asian and African Studies blog. Thank you Annabel Gallop, Christina Duffy, Daniel Lowe, Emma Goodliffe, Jana Igunma, and Steven Dey for providing materials for this blog post.

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow) for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project

About the author

Nicolas Guinebretière

Cultural heritage enthusiast


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