Anne Coulié is a preservation expert at the Louvre, specialising in ceramics from ancient Greece. David Kolin is an IT expert, working on 3D technologies at this Research and Restoration Centre in the basement of the Louvre in Paris. One of its purposes is to preserve the documentation relating to tens of thousands of artworks. David and Anne are also experimenting with a new technology - digitalising artifacts in 3D.
Says David Kolin: "This laser camera has two functions. First it photographs the object to capture the colours, and secondly a laser beam will slowly sweep the object to capture the topology. The detail captured is on the surface of the object. So if we take the colours out, and use a raking light, like we do for paintings, we can see all the little details of the surface. All this information will then be stored in the computer."
Here at the Louvre, only a few dozen objects are digitalised in 3D each year because it is still so time-consuming and expensive. However, according to Anne Coulié, in the future, this technology could be a very useful research tool.
Anne Coulié says: "The classic method relies on written reports, publications which contain very few illustrations. So it's obviously a big help, using these 3D images which contain complete photographic coverage of each object. We can blow each minute detail up as large as we want so we can examine things in more detail -even than when handling a vase for example, there are things we might not have noticed. It's a very useful tool, this 3D imagery, when classifying styles. I mean through comparing works we try to reconstruct the people who made them and get a solid, living image of their workshop."
The Greek island of Crete, a cradle of early European civilisation, is full of archeological treasures. It's an ideal place to try out 3D imaging as a way of preserving cultural heritage. This is an EU research project. Scientists, mainly IT technicians and software developers, from all over Europe, gathered here to share their research. The main aim is to perfect methods of digitalising and documenting objects in 3D and to facilitate the daily use of this technology by professionals working in cultural heritage; conservationists, restorers, and archeologists.
David Arnold, from Brighton University, co-ordinates the project. We met him at the Archeology Museum in Heraklion: "To make documentation in 3D a pratical reality you have to make the technologies work better and you have to make practical propositions for normal situations, normal museums, normal archeological sites and so on. The big challenge is to deal with the world of cultural heritage and the world of technology. And get them to share language, get them to talk together, get them to interact with a proper understanding."
David went to Heraklion with his 3D scanner to show it to the Greek preservation experts at the museum. For them it was a new discovery. They discussed the various possibilities opened up by this new technology.
Possibilities include virtual restoration; reconstructing objects from fragments scattered around various museums, using a digital database…. this 3D technology opens up numerous horizons. But there is more work to be done before the technology is more widely used… especially in changing attitudes.
David Kolin says: "These people are not really used to using this type of technology. It's really new for them. And some of them are starting to see the use of it, and that's great for us as well as for the preservationists, restorers, and archeologists who see the point of it. Everyone wins, everyone is happy."
But apart from professionals in this field, 3D is also getting interest from the public. Some European museums already have websites which allow people to see works in 3D. It's another way forward for researchers. A few years from now, there could be virtual museums, giving people a new way of exploring the past.
Says David Arnold: "If you have a valuable artefact in a museum, the public is not going to be allowed to walk up, and pick it up, and handle it. If you have a virtual artefact, then yes, you can do other things with it. You can blow it up and look at it from more angles, and so on. You may also do other things like take it apart virtually, which you can't do with the real artefact."
And why not ask the public to join in? Here in Belgium, at the Catholic University of Leuvan, researchers have developed a software called Arc 3D. The idea is to make a 3D image from simple digital photos taken from different places.
Geert Willems, a computer engineer, Catholic University of Lueven says: "Each time, you look at the castle from a slightly different angle, and that is the input we will give to the system. The system will then find matches between all the images and will try to figure out at what positions I was each time.
"The advantage of this system is that you don't need specialized equipment. Everywhere you can go with your camera, you can take images. And then you just upload it to the webserver. And then we have a whole series of computer that will do the work and recreate a 3D model".
David Arnold says: "It is getting into the whole area of crowdsourcing and other things that are taking place in technology which allow you to empower enough people, that some of the issues we talked about - with volume for example - become less difficult. If there are 10 million people taking photographs and doing models, that is likely to be much faster than ten thousand curators."
3D digitalisation is a great step forward in cultural preservation - traditional museums will always have their place, but in the future, there will be virtual ones too.