PURE3D: cultural heritage, scholarship and computing

How can 3D models be preserved? This is the idea behind PURE3D, a project in which Costas Papadopoulos and Susan Schreibman are developing an infrastructure for the preservation and publication of 3D scholarship. In the future, the platform may also provide a new way of accessing cultural heritage.  From the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, to Limburg’s mines and the Smithsonian. Everything you need to know, here in 2D.

Costas Papadopoulos from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is one of the project’s principal investigators. With a background in archaeology and 3D visualisation, he digitally reconstructs archaeological remains, including objects and buildings, and uses computer simulations to study how light has historically influenced human actions and experiences. 

His colleague and fellow principal investigator is Susan Schreibman, professor of Digital Arts and Culture. She has used 3D modelling to study the wildly differing estimates of the number of British casualties during the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, Dublin, in 1916. The reconstruction is painstakingly detailed and can rotate fully in every direction, providing researchers with many different vantage points. 

Multiple perspectives thanks to 3D modelling

Schreibman worked with ex-military personnel and historians. “We followed guided tours around the site in Dublin. Some of the scholars had been working on the battle for years; most existing accounts were biased by political sensibilities. Any narrative only ever explains one of the many things going on at the same time. The sense of 3D spatiality adds something that no amount of archive material can.” The 3D reconstruction also revealed how the street would have looked at the time, with much younger trees, no cars and different buildings. 

“These models are really useful in answering key questions because they give you many perspectives and can simulate various parameters,” Papadopoulos says. “It takes a lot of time and effort to create them. And yet, the journal that published the article based on this research doesn’t have the infrastructure to display it. The 3D model as a dynamic, interactive thing is lost to the public.” This is where PURE3D comes in—preserving such models and making them accessible for future reference and research. 

Preserving scholarship and cultural heritage

But PURE3D also has more to offer. “3D modelling isn’t yet appreciated as research output, but it has great scientific value and outreach potential,” Papadopoulos says. He mentions Recognition & Rewards, the national initiative for diversifying the factors used to evaluate academic performance. He and Schreibman hope the PURE3D platform will help 3D modelling to be valued just as much as more traditional formats. They are also working on a sister platform with mechanisms and workflows that would allow for peer reviewing of scholarly 3D models. 

Ultimately, PURE3D could be a key to the preservation of cultural heritage. A European Commission directive stipulates that all of Europe’s cultural heritage at risk of degradation or destruction be digitised by 2030, as well as 50% of the most frequently visited heritage monuments. This means creating digital ‘twins’ of objects and monuments using scanning and modelling technologies originally developed for other fields, such as medicine and engineering. 


Better than the real thing

Such technologies offer tremendous educational and academic potential. “Museums already use this technology to make objects you aren’t allowed to touch more accessible,” Papadopoulos explains. “You can turn the digital model in all directions, zoom in or overlay filters that illustrate various aspects.” 

They have conducted pilot projects with the Maastricht city council as well as cultural heritage institutions including the Museum van Bommel van Dam in Venlo and the Netherlands mining museum in Heerlen. With the latter, they modelled a series of mining lamps, accompanied by annotation that tells the story of mining in Limburg as illustrated by the technological progress and refinement of the lamps. 

Digital modelling allows for better storytelling, they say. “You can use it to explain, to add context,” Schreibman says. As a multimodal platform, PURE3D can also accommodate text boxes, images, audio and video. Because this new technology requires a different approach to educational narratives than traditional media, Schreibman and Papadopoulos offer training and support on how to use 3D models to conceptualise and tell stories. 

Unique infrastructure

“The technology is not that big a deal anymore,” Papadopoulos says, “but PURE3D is the first infrastructure of its kind. There are technical challenges and no precedents to draw from.” The project team identified the prestigious Smithsonian Institution’s software Voyager as the best platform for viewing and editing scholarly content in 3D. “They became a kind of unofficial partner. They even sent their lead developer to Maastricht and made some iterations based on our feedback. It’s been a really fruitful cooperation.” 

The project started in January 2021, funded by the PDI-SSH (Platform Digital Infrastructure–Social Sciences and Humanities), a platform for the allocation of government research funding. Following user testing, the prototype is being refined and is expected to go live by the end of 2024. “It hasn’t been easy, but we’re very proud of the result,” Schreibman says. “It’s a highly interdisciplinary endeavour; we’re collaborating with many institutions and bringing together a plethora of expertise.” Papadopoulos hopes they can find sustainable funding for the hosting and maintenance of the platform as well as training. “It’s a great way of making cultural heritage and scholarship accessible to all.”

Text: Florian Raith
Photography: Arjen Schmitz

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