Museum Photography and Digitization Workshop

Text: Kira Zumkley

Images: Kristin Phelps on behalf of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust

This June Dani Tagen, Photographer at the Horniman Museum and Kira Zumkley, Photography Manager at the Science Museum Group embarked on a fantastic opportunity to lead a workshop in museum photography and digitization at the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust for the Cultural Heritage Technology and Innovation initiative. The Trust’s mission is to invest, facilitate and build capacity to continually advance Puerto Rico’s economy and its citizens’ well-being. It is a much-needed effort as Puerto Rico has been experiencing an economic depression for 12 consecutive years which has led to a mass emigration of more than 200 individuals permanently leaving the island every day.

Hearing the stories of the people left behind and about their endeavor to save Puerto Rico’s cultural heritage from disappearing alongside their fellow countrymen has been a humbling experience. But more than that it has been an affirmation of how important it is to create communities, provide education and enable people to preserve their culture and history for generations to come.

Museums and cultural institutions in the United Kingdom are starting to understand that in order to engage people in a dialogue about the past, present and future and to create income; it is more and more necessary to make digital a dimension of everything they do. What would a museum look like without an online presence? Or, imagine museum websites, social media pages, curatorial talks, HLF applications, exhibitions, flyers, posters and publications without accompanying high quality photographs!

These were among the many questions raised during the first day of the workshop which was designed to get the attendants thinking about the benefits of museum photography and digitization. The participants ranged from freelance photographers, to collections staff and even museum directors. The presentation, group exercises and final discussion panel was a great success with more than 50 people attending, many of which had enrolled for the following four days of hands-on training as well.

Workshop attendants photographing an object using focus stacking

The second half of the workshop focused on providing the participants with basic photography and digitization training, tailored to the standards that must be applied when working in the cultural heritage sector such as correct exposure, white balance, colour space, file format and metadata. Feedback was of the highest order with all attendees giving the workshop between 9 and 10 out of 10 points.

First results using the flat copy set up

The willingness to work together across country borders and languages to support cultural heritage and share knowledge is a great opportunity to make our sector stand out and it has been a privilege to work the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust and the people of Puerto Rico.

Group photo from the 2017 Museum Photography and Digitization workshop at the PRSTRT

 


 

Paolozzi: Mosaics to Maquettes

Author: John Bryden

In February 2016 I was tasked with digitising a large number of mosaic pieces which once comprised an Eduardo Paolozzi mural, previously installed in Tottenham Court Road Tube Station, London in 1984. The work of the Scottish artist was acquired by the University of Edinburgh Art Collection in October 2015 following its removal from the tube station arches by Transport for London.

The dissipate mural consisted of approximately 500 fragments spread over 42 boxes and 4 pallets. Dependent on what percentage of the original mural we had actually acquired, the initial long-term plan was to reconstruct the mural and install it within the university campus, giving it a new life. From the outset however, it became clear that piecing it all back together again would be challenging. We decided to attempt to digitally reconstruct the mural first to give a better idea of the potential for physical reconstruction. This would also help us establish what percentage of the whole mural was represented among the pallets and boxes….an unusual, but exciting, project to say the least!

On a technical level, I used a Hasselblad-H4 camera and professional, Bowens studio lights within my digitisation process. To begin with, I captured several mosaic fragments in one shot and then went on to crop, and edit, each piece individually before saving as a separate, new file. The tricky part came in ensuring that the scale of each fragment would be represented correctly with every image produced. I, therefore, set the camera at a distance from the mosaics that would represent a 1:1 ratio in scale, placing a ruler within each raw image capture in order to make minor adjustments at a later stage if necessary. The result meant that, when using the images in image processing software, the pieces would be of a relative size to one another. If the size of the fragments was incorrect then this would only cause problems further down the line when trying to complete this very large digital jigsaw puzzle. Further, the faces/upside of the mosaics had to be perpendicular to the focal plane of the camera and, collectively, the mosaics had to be of equal distance to focal plane. The same principles applied for the positioning of the ruler itself. This confirmed that perspectives would not be distorted and that the relative size of the mosaics would remain consistent throughout the project.

montage-mosaic

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The image management process for this project involved saving the final cropped images as both tiff and png files. Having cropped directly around the edges of each fragment (i.e. with no background around the mosaic itself), the png files would then allow the fragments to be arranged edge to edge where possible. This process was key regarding the next stage of the project.

The images of the mosaics were then transferred to Professor Bob Fisher of the University’s Informatics Department. This cross departmental work seems particularly fitting as Paolozzi had close ties to the Informatics department and this relationship is visible in the form of several Paolozzi sculptures dotted about the Informatics buildings. With the help one of his PhD students, Professor Fisher used image recognition software, that he had developed, to digitally piece back together the fragments so to reflect the original design of the mural as best as possible. Professor Fisher had access to original images of the Paolozzi Mural in situ at Tottenham Road Tube Station which served as a vital reference point. To give a simple analogy, these original images would act as the cover image you would see on the box of a jigsaw puzzle, with the images of the individual mosaic fragments representing the pieces inside the box.

Art Collections Curator, Neil Lebeter, and I produced a short video interview with Professor Bob Fisher and Phd student, Alex Davies, where they discuss their work process, the challenges, and uniqueness, of this particular project and the results they have found to date. It is an interesting watch!

https://vimeo.com/170003917

Since the making of this interview the project plans have developed in light of Bob and Alex’s findings. In August 2016 the University employed a Public Art Officer, Liv Laumenech. As well as caring for, and developing the public art collection, she also has the responsibility of figuring out what to do with the fragments. Given that a large portion of the arches are missing, to reconstruct the arches now seems an unlikely option. The next step that has been taken is to organise an interdisciplinary symposium in February 2017 that will bring together Paolozzi experts, conservators and mosaicists to brainstorm ideas for redisplay and use of the fragments with students. Until such time as a decision is made regarding their redisplay, the mosaics have been used in teaching and as part of visits by researchers and the general public to the art collection.

Having completed my side of the Paolozzi Mosaics Project, I have been lucky enough to get the opportunity to digitise a large number of Paolozzi maquettes which are also part of the University of Edinburgh Art Collection. The collection encompasses a wide range of weird and wonderful pieces. Among his maquettes we can see where he began developing his ideas for what became his piece, The Manuscript of Monte Cassino (also known as the ‘big foot’), situated outside St Mary’s RC Cathedral here in Edinburgh.

paolozzi-big-foot

Digitising the mosaic fragments involved a more consistent photographic approach in terms of camera positioning and lighting, whereas working with the maquettes has offered slightly more freedom in this regard. I have been lighting and positioning each maquette in a way that best exhibits the physical attributes of that particular object. Here are a number of the maquettes pictured below.

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We have also had Digital Heritage specialist Clara Molina Sanchez in the studio carrying out 3D work on one of the maquettes. This should render a high quality 3D visualisation of the object. Currently we are looking at ways of delivery such 3D images online. Here, Clara has kindly allowed us to show an interesting behind-the-scenes shot of her setup.

paolozzi-clara

John Bryden

Project Photographer

Digital Imaging Unit

University of Edinburgh

 


 

RA250 stories part 2: Digitising the Collection

Author: Liz Dewer

In the build-up the RA’s 250th anniversary in 2018, we are digitising 10,000 new items from the Academy’s Collection – from works of art to letters and sketches. In this film, we take a look at how these works are chosen and what they can tell us about the history of art practice in the UK.

The digital life of a Hebrew manuscript

Authors: Kristin A. Phelps, former Senior Imaging Technician, British Library and Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), British Library.

Picture your favourite book. Is it just the printed words on the pages that make it special? What about your notes and doodles in the margins? And the dog-eared corners marking the important parts? It may be one of the first things you pack if you are going on holiday, or the first item you unpack when you move house. Let’s be honest, your e-reader is great but there’s something about the physical copy that makes it irreplaceable.

The unique value of books is rooted in their dual nature. They are vehicles of information and, at the same time, they are three-dimensional objects. Books and manuscripts have always had a secret life as objects; they interact with the senses of those who touch them and forever show the evidence of human interaction with them. They have been cherished objects people have carried in both life and in death. Libraries not only stand as testaments to the importance of knowledge, but also to the value of safe-keeping printed books and handwritten manuscripts.

In the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the public is invited to see a selection of the Library’s books and collection items. While carefully selected pages and folios are visible in the Gallery, it is impossible to examine the entire book as a single object. Visitors and scholars may be interested in the unique bindings and spines of these treasures, but are not able to hold the object, feel it, and observe its physical properties to get a sense of the whole book. In fact, the visitors have only a small percentage of the whole ‘book experience’ – and for a good reason. These fragile treasures need to be preserved for future generations. This is the seemingly unsolvable problem for objects in our collection; how can a viewer have a total sense of any object in a complete way?

Enter 3D imaging. A novel solution which allows viewers to examine an entire book or manuscript as a whole object. The technology also provides a digital record which aids in the documentation and preservation of the item. Many museums are currently using 3D imaging and modelling for their collection items. These models provide website visitors (and visitors to galleries) a view of objects as a whole, giving a somewhat tactile feel to items which are generally untouchable. The same is true with manuscripts held in libraries. A good example is the significant collection of Hebrew manuscripts held at the British Library.

Generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the Library has digitised (in two dimensions) 1,300 manuscripts under the guidance of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (2013-16). Many of these newly digitised manuscripts are not readily available to the public due to their fragile condition. The project employs a digital curator (Polonsky Fellow) whose responsibility is to encourage the consultation of the project’s digital material for research and scholarship, and promote fresh uses for the new digital research items.

What better way to re-examine some of this material than in full 3D? Under the direction of digital curator Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, a small project was conceived to create 3D models of three of the Hebrew manuscripts: Add MS 4709 (a 15th-century CE Pentateuch), Or 1087 (a 15th-century CE Book of Esther), and Add MS 11831 (a 17th-century CE Scroll of Esther).

9 x 6

9 x 6

FIG 1: A Pentateuch from central Italy, 1486 CE. The name of one of its past owners is inscribed on the binding with gold letters and ornamental design (Salomon da Costa, 1719 CE; Add MS 4709)

 

11.75 x 7

11.75 x 7

FIG 2: A 15th-century CE Book of Esther (Or 1087)

The method chosen for 3D modelling is called photogrammetry – or Structure-from-Motion (SfM). In simple terms, a three-dimensional structure can be created from a sequence of two-dimensional images. Special software creates the third dimension by following the ‘motion’ of the camera around the object. Unlike laser scanning, this method is affordable and simple even for non-specialists. All that’s needed is a digital camera – even just a smartphone camera.

In the case of the Library’s Hebrew manuscripts, we benefited from the Imaging Studio’s advanced photography and lighting equipment. The 3D modelling process began with taking photographs of each manuscript from different angles. The idea was to ensure that we had photographs of the manuscript covering its entire surface, with sufficient overlap. In order to do that, the manuscript was placed on a turntable and the camera was mounted on a tripod. We rotated the turntable at 10-15 degrees with a photo taken at each position. After completing a 360-degree circle the manuscript 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 next stage. The masking process included making a copy of each image, outlining the object that we wanted to model in an image-editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop), then filling the selected object with white, and the background with black.

After uploading all the images and their masks to the software (we used Agisoft PhotoScan), it identifies which part of each image should be 3D modelled. The software then makes use of the overlap between the photos to ‘stitch’ the sets of images together, forming a three-dimensional shape of the manuscript. This is done with the help of manually selecting obvious markers visible in photos from both sets, to help the software recognise shared points.

1.35 x 0.21 meters

1.35 x 0.21 meters

FIG 3: A 17th-century CE Esther scroll in an ivory case (Add MS 11831)

Once the models were complete, they were published to Sketchfab – an online platform that hosts 3D content – and can be seen below. Sketchfab allows you to annotate models in order to give a structured narrative or journey through some of the important features. This can be seen in the model of the Scroll of Esther (Add MS 11831), on which annotations were written by the collection’s lead curator Ilana Tahan. Curatorial annotations add yet another dimension to a digitised manuscript, facilitating a more naturally flowing learning experience for researchers and the public alike. These exciting results allow users to have a more rounded view of the manuscripts and present new opportunities for engagement.

 

 

Why does this matter? The ownership section of each of our catalogue records reminds us all who has read it, and that these manuscripts have had impressive histories for hundreds of years. Books and manuscripts have most likely been bound and rebound several times and they have travelled the world in the hands of different owners. These owners from the past, like you, found their special book so important that they carried it with them. And now, these manuscripts have a new chapter in their history as objects – not just physical, but also digital.


 

None Hath Refused:

Digitising the Protestation Returns at the Parliamentary Archives

Author: Simon Barnes, Digital Imaging Technician, Parliamentary Archives

We’re a digitisation team of two in the Parliamentary Archives and we’re responsible for delivering the Archives’ public copying service, digitisation project work and supporting exhibitions and outreach activities. We handle on-demand requests for copies of archives from the public and support exhibition and outreach activities by photographing records which are about to go out on loan. We also do photography for exhibition panels, publicity and our web resources and social media.

The digitisation project work we do is essential to the Parliamentary Archives’ aim to increase online access to our collections. The latest project we’ve been working on is the Protestation Returns. The Protestation Returns, dating from 1641-42, were ordered by the House of Commons and required all adult men to swear allegiance to the Protestant religion. The returns were organised by parish and are the closest we have to a seventeenth century census, significantly taking place at the start of a civil war that involved all levels of society and affected all countries in the British Isles and Ireland.

We work closely with our Collection Care colleagues who help prepare the documents by doing a condition check, unbinding the Returns from their files and flattening any folded documents. This really helps to speed up the process of digitisation and flags any which may need careful handling. Whilst the majority of the Returns are written on paper, a number are on parchment. In some cases individuals signed their own names on the Return, but more often an official wrote down the names and individuals made their mark. Some people refused to make the protestation, and this was duly noted, whilst widows (who became household head on the death of their husbands) also sometimes signed. So, each Parish produced a return in its own fashion and it created a somewhat varied collection of documents!

Our main challenge with this project was the highly variable dimensions and formats of the documents. Some Returns were completed on the back of the declaration, some were bound into booklets and some were recorded on thin lengthy strips – some are very large, while others are tiny! We established early on that we would not be able to optimise the photography of each item by setting column height, lens choice and ppi individually, it would be too lengthy a process. Furthermore, we weren’t able to set our Nikon D800 at one height and photograph everything with one setting as there was too much variation but we thought the Nikon would be quick as we could use live view to line-up the documents. We tested and developed three different settings which enabled us to digitise the majority of the collection but inevitably some documents required individual settings. Part way through the project we bought an IQ180 digital back and 55mm lens for our Phase camera and decided to switch as we could improve quality and productivity. With 80 megapixels we could set the camera at one height and capture all our documents at 600ppi (see a time-lapse of my colleague Tim at work).

As much of a challenge has been the ability, time and motivation (!) to quality assure all the images generated. We’ve followed a process of first QA, followed by any necessary reprocessing/reshoots, a second QA and then web conversion and watermarking. The images are then moved to the digital repository for permanent preservation. Low resolution jpegs are viewable via our online catalogue and the Archivists and our IT department have developed a prototype Map Search, which allows users to search for the Returns we hold by area. So, if you can trace your family tree back to the seventeenth century, and you have an idea where your relatives lived, you may be able to find them in the Protestation Returns.

We’re promoting the records and the digitisation project, via social media, blogging and are planning some outreach activities with regional archives. For the social media promotion, we’ve picked out interesting watermarks, useful dates, noted when women are listed (they weren’t required to be), where there are ‘recusants’ (refusals) and are highlighting some of the more interesting information and text we’ve discovered – some people were ‘not at home’ when they should have been making the protestation!

The photography is complete and the Returns are being ingested into the digital repository and made available through the map and online catalogue.

We’ve started on our next project focussing on Victorian MP and Parliamentary Estate photographer Benjamin Stone, which involves both digitising his historic photographs of the Palace of Westminster and its visitors and taking some of our own pictures of the rooms today, to compare and contrast how things have changed. We have also been visiting the roof of the Victoria Tower and took a time-lapse of the view, where we were lucky to catch a raincloud, and rainbow, passing over London.

Tim Banting Digitising the Protestation Returns Some volumes, the printed Protestation and an example of a return