The Uncertain Space: a virtual museum for the University of Bristol

The Uncertain Space is the new virtual museum for the University of Bristol. It is the result of a joint project between Library Research Support and Cultural Collections, funded by the AHRC through the Capability for Collections Impact Funding, which also helped fund the first exhibition.

The project originated in a desire to widen the audience to some of the University’s collections, but in a sustainable way which would persist beyond the end of the project. Consequently, The Uncertain Space is a permanent museum space with a rolling programme of exhibitions and a governance structure, just like a physical museum.

The project had two main outcomes: the first was the virtual museum space and the second was the first exhibition to be hosted in the museum. The exhibition, Secret Gardens, was co-curated with a group of young Bristolians, aged 11-18 and explores connections between the University’s public artworks and some of the objects held in our rich collections.

Entrance to the Secret Gardens exhibition
Entrance to the Secret Gardens exhibition

The group of young people attended a series of in-person and online workshops to discover their shared interests and develop the exhibition. The themes of identity, activism and environmental awareness came through strongly and these helped to inform their choice of items for the exhibition.

hand pointing at manuscripts on a table
Choosing items from Special Collections for the exhibition

Objects, images and audiovisual clips, to link with each of the public artworks, were selected from the Theatre Collection, Special Collections, the Botanic Gardens and from collections held in the Anatomy, Archaeology and Earth Sciences departments. For some of the choices, digital copies already existed, but most of the items had to be digitised by photography or by scanning, using a handheld structured light scanner. The nine public artworks were captured by 360 degree photography. In addition, the reactions of the young people were recorded as they visited each of the public artworks and these are also included in the exhibition.

scanning a piece of malachite
Scanning a piece of malachite for the first exhibition

As the virtual museum was designed to mimic a real-world exhibition, the University of Bristol team and the young people worked with a real-world exhibition designer, and it was found that designing a virtual exhibition was a similar process to designing a real-world exhibition. Some aspects of the process, however, were unique to creating a virtual exhibition, such as the challenges of making digital versions of some objects. The virtual museum also provides possibilities that the real-world version cannot, for example the opportunity to pick up and handle objects and to be transported to different locations.

Towards the end of the project, a second group of young people, who were studying a digital music course at Creative Youth Network, visited the virtual museum in its test phase and created their own pieces of music in response. Some of these are included in a video about the making of the museum.

The museum and first exhibition can be visited on a laptop, PC or mobile device via The Uncertain Space webpage, by downloading the app onto a phone or VR headset, or by booking a visit to the Theatre Collection  or Special Collections, where VR headsets are available for anyone to view the exhibition.

We are looking forward to a programme of different exhibitions to be hosted in The Uncertain Space and are interested in hearing from anyone who would like to put on a show.

You can read more about the making of The Uncertain Space and its first exhibition from our colleagues in Special Collections and Theatre Collection:
Our collections go virtual!
Digitising for the new virtual museum: The Uncertain Space

Shiny shells and steamships: an experiment in phototexturing a 3D model.

In the Library Research Support team we have quite a bit of experience of 3D scanning and of photogrammetry, but have never tried combining digital photographs with scan data to make a ‘photorealistic’ 3D model.
When we were asked to scan a large, engraved shell belonging to the Brunel Institute , we decided it was time to give it a go, using our Artec Space Spider structured light scanner and the ‘phototexturing’ function in Artec Studio 16.  This phototexturing option allows photographs of the object to be combined with the digital model to improve the model’s textures and produce a more photorealistic result.

The shell in question has a shiny surface and is engraved with text and images, including depictions of the SS Great Britain and Omar Pasha, an Ottoman Field Marshall and governor. Shiny surfaces can be problematic when scanning, but we dialled up the sensitivity of the scanner a bit and encountered no difficulties. We were also concerned that the very low relief engravings would not be discernible in the final model, which did indeed prove to be the case.

We were careful to capture both scans and photographs under the same conditions, scanning one side of the shell and then, without moving it, taking photographs from every angle before turning it over to scan and photograph the underside.

When processing the scan data, the main difficulty was fixing a large hole in the mesh which occurred in the cavity of the shell where the scanner had not been able to capture data. Because of the complex geometry, Artec Studio’s hole-filling options simply covered the hole with a large blob. Therefore, we used the bridge function to link opposite edges of the large hole and subdivide it into smaller ones, which could be filled with a less blobby result. We then used the defeature brush and the smoothing tool to reduce flaws. The result is not an accurate representation of the inside of the shell, but gives a reasonable impression of it and, without any holes in the mesh, the model can be printed in 3D.

Adding texture from the photographs was simply a matter of importing them in two groups (photos of the top and photos of the underside) and matching them to the fusion. A handful of photographs couldn’t be matched but there was enough overlap between the other photographs to complete the texture. The phototextured model does show some shadows as we were not using dedicated lights, but there is significant improvement in the resolution and in the visibility of the engravings.

an engraved shell
The shell before phototexturing, showing texture captured by the scanner.
an engraved shell
The shell with texture from the photographs applied.

When we came to experiment with printing the model, we found there was not enough 3d geometry to reproduce the engravings, though we had avoided simplifying the mesh during processing. As the faint engravings on the shell are mostly visible through discolouration, we think that 3D printing in colour would be a good solution and the Brunel Institute are also considering other possibilities, such as engraving directly onto a 3D print. We look forward to seeing the result of their chosen solution.