An Emotions-Based Heritage Approach

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This post is by community member Jane-Heloise Nancarrow, published by Sketchfab staff.

About the Emotions3D Project

My name is Jane-Heloise Nancarrow, and I have a PhD in medieval buildings archaeology from the University of York (UK). I’m now based at the University of Western Australia, where I research 3D visualisation, photogrammetry, and digital immersion for cultural heritage. Last year I completed an exciting project called Emotions3D: Bringing Digital Heritage to Life, as an Associate Investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe, 1100– 1800).

This project worked with several UK museums to digitise particular objects in their collections which evoke strong, complex, or changing emotions. The artefacts were drawn from the Victoria and Albert Museum, St Bart’s Hospital Museum and Archive, The Stirling Smith Gallery and Museum, and Keats’ House in London. Curatorial staff at each museum were fascinated by the process of photogrammetry capture and keen to discuss long-term digitisation efforts, which is a testament to the growing collection of cultural heritage objects on the Sketchfab site.

For this project, I also worked with researchers around Australia who wrote unique ‘emotional biographies’ of the objects according to their specialty research interests. Coordinating this team was challenging and also very rewarding – we worked closely together to design and curate carefully researched content for a public audience to attach to the 3D models.

The Collection

Highlights of the Emotions3D collection include a range of objects from the medieval period up to the nineteenth century. A grisly amputation saw and surgical trepanning dummy feature alongside an aged Anglo-Saxon coin minted by King Alfred the Great. Objects which inspire sadness, pathos, or melancholic reflection, such as a child’s prosthetic leg or the poet John Keats’ copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy, jostle for attention with objects of play or pleasurable past-times. These include the world’s oldest football (found in the rafters of Stirling Castle); an amusing Delft Ware ‘puzzle jug’; and a small Japanese Netsuke figurine – hung from the belt of a kimono to delight its owner. Other fine objets d’art in the collection, such as the ornate silver perfume burner or the ivory knife handle depicting faith and charity, demonstrate exquisite material craftsmanship, while a battered sixteenth-century casket belies a long and interesting history shrouded by the passage of time.

The objects in the collection can be viewed as an online resource on the purpose-built website. Each object is embedded from the Sketchfab site and annotated in 3D using Sketchfab’s customisable annotation points, so you can take a ‘virtual tour’ around each object. For the fifteenth-century ‘Burgh Box’, this means you can peer inside the artefact at the pages of a highly decorated medieval Book of Hours which were used to line its interior.

An Emotions-Based Historical Approach

My work with the Centre for the History of Emotions led me to explore how emotions-based historical approaches and 3D visualisation for museums fit together. I wanted to understand the role of objects in shaping people’s emotional responses to the world around them, and whether viewing digital objects in 3D environments can enhance emotional engagement or immersion. I also wanted to investigate whether cultural heritage has its own ‘history’ and reflect on whether emotional and affective reactions to objects changed over time. Most importantly, the Emotions3D project revealed the complexity of emotions surrounding objects of the past, and how we understand and relate to objects as three-dimensional ‘virtual’ artefacts today.

To give you an example, the ‘Amputation Saw’ from the Victoria and Albert collection (accompanied by horrifying historical descriptions of the procedure on the website) might evoke emotional reactions of fear, disgust or anxiety – all fairly predictable and unchanging emotions over time:

But other objects in the collection may have elicited conflicted or changing emotions depending on their historical context. The ‘world’s oldest football’ might have been used as an item of play, sparking joy and exuberance; but as you will read, it might also have been placed in the rafters of Stirling castle as a talisman to ward off witches, suggesting undertones of fear.

Similarly, the ‘puzzle jug’ might have been used as the subject of a drinking game to amuse seventeenth-century revellers and bystanders, but the butt of the joke might have experienced a sense of humiliation of shame. From these objects we can understand that cultural heritage generates complex emotions such as anticipation, empathy and nostalgia just as much as simpler feelings of anger, sadness or love.

Using 3D

The opportunities afforded by 3D visualisation have been integral to the Emotions3D project. 3D viewing allows users to look at digital cultural heritage from all angles and experience parts of objects which would normally remain unseen, such as the delicate toes on the underside of the netsuke model below.  This has repercussions for our emotional engagement with cultural heritage; while we can better understand the emotions of people in the past, we are also able to generate greater interaction from museum visitors today.

Sometimes the photogrammetry process can visually ‘flatten’ objects and remove surface texture and shadows. While working on Emotions3D, I have undertaken research into the use of post-processing to articulate the heritage aesthetic within digital environments. Sketchfab’s post-processing filters allow you to tailor viewing experiences to better reflect what 3D objects might look like in a museum – adjusting lighting, backdrops, specular and reflective qualities of objects. The issue of ‘digital curating’ in 3D is an emerging field, and an interesting avenue for future enquiry.

Following the website launch in December 2016, the Emotions3D resource was developed into a curriculum package, and is now being used to teach medieval and early modern material history in Western Australian secondary schools. There are also plans to work with the collection for specialised media, drama and technology classes and create a ‘moveable’ VR exhibition at the University of Western Australia. This will allow even more students to access the captivating digital cultural heritage artefacts of Emotions3D.

You can view the whole collection on the Emotions3D Sketchfab Profile or website.

About the author

Thomas Flynn

Tom is Cultural Heritage Lead at Sketchfab.

Co-founder of museuminabox.org


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