Researchers Put Stored Paintings and Sculptures in a “3D Wikipedia of Art”

Posted on Jan 4 2010 - 3:01pm by Holly Robinson

When you visit most art museums, the art that you see on display represents only a fraction of the museum’s actual holdings. The percentage of art holdings that are actually on display in museums around the world is dropping, as the recession forces some museums to move to smaller facilities or to close their doors altogether. Researchers at the University of Brighton, in Sussex, England, want to make art that is being held in storage available for people to see in 3D form, over the Internet.  If they succeed, stored art could be viewable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, indefinitely. The project is called 3D-COFORM, Tools and Enterprise for 3D Collection Formation.

“What you see at any given time in a museum is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Professor David Arnold, the project leader. “There are many more things in storage than on display and all these could be recorded and made available for 3D viewing….Everything a museum holds could be available and accessible at almost any time. Virtual handling of the objects is a different challenge but with this technology you’ll be able to see details invisible on a visit to the museum.” 

The University of Brighton researchers are hoping to record the art that is not in storage as well, so that the online art display can include not only stored art, but also art that is on display in cultural centers and museums all over the world. 

Researchers have begun their work with the ancient and neo-classical sculptures and lavish furniture at Petworth House, a 17th-century mansion in West Sussex, and the works in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Arnold noted that recording and cataloguing works of art is a massive enterprise. It will take at least three years, however, before any 3D versions of art become available via the World Wide Web.

“The work is still in its infancy,” Arnold said. “We really are right at the beginning of this, and when you look at how many visitor centres there are around the world, then you will realise how much work there is involved. In Britain, for instance, there are about 10,000 centres while in France there are probably four times as many. The number of cultural venues is huge.”

 While art has been available in two dimensions on the Internet for years (see ArtCyclopedia), the University of Brighton project will be one of the first to put art in three dimensions, and will make a much more extensive collection of art available than has ever been provided before. The artwork will be shown not just from a few angles, but from every possible angle, making the views of each work of art potentially more comprehensive than a person could experience by viewing the art in person, because the online technology would allow people to “turn” the object in every possible direction. When visitors to a museum look at a work of art, however, they cannot, for example, pick a sculpture up and turn it upside down or tilt it to see certain parts of it more clearly. But the 3D-COFORM website will allow viewers to do exactly that. Researchers are calling it a “3D Wikipedia of Art.” 

Researchers working on the project include experts in computer science, the arts, and business. Some are from the University of Brighton itself, while others have joined the project from other institutions across the globe. Sculptures, monuments and other artifacts will be recorded, in part, using digital photogrammetry (a type of remote sensing technology) and laser-scanning tools. Smaller sculptures will be placed in a portable dome, under controlled lighting, before they are photographed. 

Objects with reflective surfaces, such as jewelry and mirrors, are difficult to photograph. Researchers may have to develop their own special strategies for making those kinds of photographs.