Architecture students use digital design to reveal museums’ hidden collections

Studio leader and founder of Siii Projects Ben Waters explains how his studio is bringing ancient artefacts into the virtual world and revealing our museum's hidden collections.

Students use lidar scanning to create a 3D virtual representation of buildings and spaces

What role can architects play in preserving our museum's ancient artefacts?

This is precisely what MSD students found themselves exploring in Melbourne School of Design’s Studio 19 IMAGING – A Museum Made Digital. The studio teaches students to master a range of technologies to open up the world of galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) to a universal audience.

The core interest of the studio is to explore the possibilities of virtual space using cutting-edge technology, and studio leader Ben Waters quickly identified the cultural heritage industry as an ideal sector for experimenting with new media and digital technologies.

“The Studio aims to develop new virtual spaces for education, interaction and immersion” says Ben, “most museums do not have enough physical space to exhibit their entire collections. New types of technologies like 3D scanning aligned with virtual reality present an opportunity to bring these artefacts out of the cupboards and allow the public to interact with them in a new way.”

The studio sees students being trained up in Lidar scanning technology, 3D printing, traditional line drawing, virtual reality and photogrammetry to digitally capture artefacts from The Ian Potter Museum of Art and represent them in both the real and the virtual world. The students produce exhibitions of The Potter’s archived archaeology and classics collection through virtual technologies, including a representation of a physical and virtual exhibition space.

3D representation of the scanned facade of 'cultural rubble' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art

“Typically, architecture is about translating digital models and information into something real, a building for instance. In the studio we almost reverse that process. We take the real world - buildings, objects and environments - and we turn them into digital environments”, explains Ben.

Students Belinda Yang and Dominique Tang are studying in their 2ndand 3rdyear of a Master of Architecture respectively. For both students, Studio 19 was the first time they had encountered this type of imaging, scanning and virtual reality technology. “Aside from some limited experience with 3D printing, I was new to the studio’s digital processes and mediums” says Belinda, “the gradual progression through design and technology exercises during the start of semester really allowed us to explore and develop our own forms of visual representation”.

Dominique found that the focus on typically non-architectural techniques as part of the design process broadened her understanding of digital applications in design. “Design is a field which needs to respond to the rapid and global saturation of new and complex technologies”, says Dominique, “using image rendering as a generative method was a really efficient way to explore spatial conditions, as opposed to describing them verbally or through detail diagrams. Studio 19 gave me a new perspective on the role of representation in architecture, and revealed a more inclusive means of design that fosters collaboration between different fields and within diverse communities.”

A virtual exhibition space designed by student Dominique Tang
Image: A virtual exhibition space designed by Studio 19 student Dominique Tang

The role of the architect in contemporary society is evolving and expanding, with increasing opportunities to have agency in online and digital civic space. Ben notes that although currently it’s people like Mark Zuckerberg who control online public space, there are more and more opportunities for architects to design public experiences within the virtual and digital space.

“A lot of people are interested in virtual archives or virtual galleries, but no one is designing them. Everyone is just putting images up on a website and calling it a virtual experience - that’s not an interesting way to experience virtual content at all”, explains Ben, “if anyone was going to be able to curate or design these experiences properly, it was going to be architects.”

Dr Kyla McFarlane, Curator of Academic Programs (Research) at The Ian Potter Museum of Art immediately recognised the benefit of working with architects when Ben first approached her to collaborate on Studio 19. “The students’ research allows us to see the Collection anew, through their innovative approaches to digital imaging, archiving and object display” says Kyla, “the studio has opened up my thinking into how we can further engage and connect academics and students in all disciplines at the University of Melbourne with the Museum's exhibitions, collections and programs”.

Kyla’s role in the studio is to select artefacts from The Potter’s collection that students will work with throughout the semester. Kyla works alongside Arts Wests’ Object-Based Learning (OBL) laboratories where the artefacts are set up ready to be photographed and scanned by the students. Once students digitise the artefacts, they can experiment with technology like 3D printing, or photogrammetry which involves overlaying high resolution photographs onto a 3D digital mesh to create a high-resolution virtual model of the artefact.

The virtual representations of the artefacts created using a photogrammetry process are so detailed that you can see every crack and paint pigment.

“It’s amazing that we have gotten to the point where you can pick up a 3000-year-old pot in high resolution virtual reality and see every tiny detail. You can interreact with the artefacts, move them around, throw them up in the air, set one aside and grab another one.”

Whilst these designed experiences allow people to interact with history in a different, innovative and engaging way, the potential for artefact preservation was also a significant motivator for Ben. Incidents such as the recent fire in the Brazil National Museum have resulted in the loss of priceless information and artefacts, in this particular case, about the indigenous cultures and history of Brazil. “If we can capture all of these artefacts it would play a crucial role in preserving history and knowledge” says Ben,“I don’t think the virtual world can or should ever replace the real, but I think it definitely has a role to play”.

To find out more about Studio 19 IMAGING – A Museum Made Digital, read our in-depth interview with Ben Waters here.
Studio 19 will be running in semester 1, 2019.

Students try Studio 19 Virtual Reality
Image: Studio Leader Ben Waters and students interacting with digitised artefacts in virtual reality