Session proposal – On Representing Material Culture / ObjectVRs

I have a couple of different ideas which might be different sessions, might meld into other people’s session proposals, or might all belong in one session – you tell me!

Basically, I have an ongoing concern that current representations of material culture online are not sufficient. I worry that we’re already stuck in a model that makes more sense for documents and for 2D art than for three dimensional artifacts.

1. Thinking outside the box:

How can we reimagine websites for digital collections of artifacts in ways that transcend current models? We all know the current standard: you search, you end up with a list or a grid of thumbnails, you go to a page for a single item, you have one decent image of that item and some summary / tombstone-type text. Should we just be adding to this? More images, more information, more conversation? I’ve previously written about this as a need for “multiplicity.”

OR should we be considering new, completely different models? What would they look like? It’s hard to even imagine – but I bet as a group we could brainstorm some interesting ideas. Maybe some of you can share sites that are already transcending standard models.

What are the pros and cons here? There’s definitely something to be said for keeping a familiar interface so users are comfortable navigating through the information we have to offer. But how can we balance this with a need to better express the materiality of the objects?

then, another related issue-

2. Are ObjectVRs worth the effort?

I hope the answer is yes, because over the last couple years I have put quite a bit of effort into an objectVR project. Here’s a recent example from my project:

When I look at this object, I can rotate it to whatever side (and zoom in on whichever detail)  is most interesting to me. It would take hundreds of close-up images to view the same detail in a strictly 2D format, and would be confusing to understand where on the garment each detail fell. As I view the object turning, I have a better sense of its spatial presence. So, yes, worth it – maybe? My undergraduate students are lucky to have access to these real objects in our collection, but rarely is such access available on demand – and I realize that students at other institutions don’t have the same kind of access to such artifacts. I’m hoping that these digital surrogates can allow a student to engage in close looking not unlike how they might examine the object in person.

In my time working on this project I have come to the conclusion that the most “expensive” moment of the process (in terms of time and labor) is in the preparation – mounting the objects and setting up the lights. However, the same time and effort would have been required for a single front view photograph! If you’re going to spend all that time and energy to photograph an object, why not stick it on a turntable and photograph it from all sides, taking just a few more minutes?

Well, in the process of developing this ObjectVR project, I’ve found a couple of answers to the “why not?” but I honestly don’t think they’re very good ones. It has taken us quite some time to develop a workflow for processing the raw images into objectVR animations, and to publish them online. However, I’m hopeful that future stages of this project will move more efficiently now that we’ve worked out the kinks.

So, what do you think? Is it worth it? I’m happy to share details of my process and show more examples, including our custom settings in the commercial Object2VR software we’re now using (including the settings that hopefully make these work on mobile devices).

Categories: General, Museums, Proceedings of THATCamp, Session Proposals, Teaching, Visualization |
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About Arden Kirkland

I'm at the exciting intersection of libraries, archives, museums, and education, working to help digital collections bridge the gaps between, and to better represent material culture to a wider audience. I work with a collection of historic clothing at Vassar College, and this summer I'm starting to pursue an MLIS degree at Syracuse University (to add to my MFA in costume design from Rutgers).

4 Responses to Session proposal – On Representing Material Culture / ObjectVRs

  1. Let me add – this can become more of a “hack” session if people are interested. I could provide sample images and you could download the free version of the Object2VR software and try it out – I could talk you through the steps and share what I’ve learned.

  2. Helen D. Wall says:

    Your example of the garment convinces me it’s worth it. I am very interested in learning more about your project. See you at Camp.

  3. This is crucial for the future of electronic use of virtual objects and solves some of the accessibility conundrum of curator white glove patrolling in museums which is such a barrier to object study. Even as a curator myself, I did not realize how close to viable the VR process was, I want to learn more and sign up for your session. Hope the files aren’t so huge that I can eventually use them on my independent scholar type websites. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: THATCamp Museums NYC 2012 « Information Flux in the 21st Century

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