3D Imaging in Cultural Heritage

Decorative Art and Sculpture
December 7, 2017

On 9 and 10 November, the British Museum hosted a conference about 3D Imaging in Cultural Heritage. The conference was supported by IPERION-CH (Integrated Platform for the European Research Infrastructure on Cultural Heritage), and explored the wide range of methods and applications of 3D imaging, as well as how 3D data can be used for research purposes and for improving public engagement.

3D Imaging in Cultural Heritage Conference at the British Museum


Several members of the Cast Courts team attended this conference in order to gain a better understanding of this technology, the applications available and most applicable for the museum environment, and how we as a museum could better utilise the opportunities provided by 3D imaging technology. Moreover, the conference also provided us with the opportunity to consider further the parallels between modern day copying and modes of reproduction, in comparison to the methods and aims of copying in the 19th century.

The BM organised a packed and tightly run programme of events, with many contributors from a wide range of organisations and institutions. Particular highlights of the conference included a keynote paper by Daniel Antoine, the British Museum’s Curator of Physical Anthropology, which discussed the use of Dual Energy CT scanning and 3D visualisation technology to enable Egyptian Mummies in the collection to be digitally unwrapped and studied from the inside out. This dual faceted approach not only enhanced the understanding of these complicated and extremely fragile objects without physically touching them, but also provided the opportunity to create a digital visualisation of the mummy’s layers to be used in the gallery. Other highlights included a paper on the 3D reconstruction of stone reliefs from Niniveh, Historic Environment Scotland’s use of 3D imaging to create an interactive mobile app for the Antonine Wall, and an examination of the application of drone technology for UAV photogrammetry for recording fragile fossils and sites. For more information on the wide range of talks and speakers please click here.

Slide from ‘Education and Professional Development for New Cross-Disciplinary Roles in 3D Imaging and Digital Heritage Technologies in Europe’ by Mona Hess, UCL


The conference was incredibly inspiring, and made clear that 3D Imaging will soon become an essential component of cultural heritage, particularly within the areas of documentation, conservation, and interpretation. It was especially interesting to hear from a number of people whose jobs relate specifically to these technologies, and whose jobs did not exist in museums until very recently. In addition, a paper by Mona Hess from UCL discussed the development of new university courses which will provide the museum workers of the future with a good basic understanding of the scientific principles underpinning these technologies, so as to be well equipped to utilise digital technology for the display and dissemination of cultural heritage. However, the conference also made apparent that we are just on the cusp of understanding these technologies, and processing how they can be best used to benefit and develop our understanding of museum collections, and make collections accessible to wider audiences.

The rate at which 3D Imaging technology is developing, and the cost of the equipment and expertise involved, is perhaps daunting for museums in the current climate. However many of the speakers rely entirely on some of the many free programmes available, and have been able to achieve very sophisticated results which have obvious benefits for collection care and management. For example, Eilish Clohessy discussed how at Derby Museum volunteers are using hand held scanners to scan every object in the collection, and are using SketchFab to share the museum collection in an easy and accessible format. Not only does this method of documentation capture the object in its entirety, but it also makes the collection highly accessible to a much larger audience. In a similar way, several speakers stressed the benefits of scanning and modelling archaeological material to document particularly fragile or exposed sites, or to reconstruct especially delicate fragments. By creating 3D models, future handling of the collection will be limited, and site data can be preserved effectively for future study.

The application of more complex, and expensive methods of 3D Imaging were also discussed such as CT Scanning and Neutron Imaging. Several members of the Imaging and Analysis Centre of the Natural History Museum spoke and presented the variety of different ways in which their expertise and high spec equipment is being used to understand and benefit the museum’s collection. This included creating bespoke 3D printed mounts for complex objects, scanning whale skeletons, and analysing micro fossils. In addition, a conservator from National Museums Scotland demonstrated how CT Scanning of an Umbrian Madonna and Child enabled the undertaking of a full cross-disciplinary technical examination. She explained how this resulted in findings essential to the object’s interpretation, conservation, and display.

Despite the range of equipment, skills, and budget required for the different methods of scanning and modelling, all the papers made clear that this technology is being used in museums not just because ‘we can’, but is being driven by clear research needs for specific investigative purposes. Used effectively and in conjunction with more traditional research methods, this technology offers cultural heritage the opportunity to make real advances in our historic, practical, and scientific understanding of our museum collections. Moreover, the value is twofold, as the scans and models can thereafter be reduced and reused for many other purposes, including interpretation and documentation.

Perhaps rather surprisingly, the actual 3D printing of objects was not discussed as much as expected during the conference, but there were a number of exhibits outside the lecture theatre which demonstrated the application of 3D printing technology. However, the conference did make clear that for museums 3D printing can be best utilised for creating new types of gallery interpretation and for ensuring collections are made available to the widest ranging audiences. Beyond this it seems that 3D printing may be developing too rapidly for museums, despite being used widely in industry and the art world, and that 3D imaging may offer greater opportunities in the field of virtual reality. However this has a great many implications for data management, storage and infrastructure, and therefore presents museums with a number of practical challenges which require careful consideration.

The photo above shows a slide included by one of the speakers. This photo prompted much debate amongst the Cast Courts team (and much of the audience!), but this tweet does draw significant parallels and make an important point. The technology of 3D Imaging is still very new, and as such its application, and real benefit to museums is still being properly established. As a result, many people have a number of questions and concerns about the use of 3D imaging in museums. However, it is worth remembering that many people had similar concerns when technologies such as plaster casting, electrotyping, and photography began to gain popularity during the 19th century, and when the V&A and others began building up their collections of copies from across the world. For these mediums, the fear has gradually abated over the years, as people have come to appreciate the value of copying for democratising the art world and enabling the mass circulation of imagery, design, and art history to a wide ranging audience. Like traditional methods of copying, 3D Imaging does not de-value the original or replace it, but rather offers a new way to understand, disseminate, and think about our museum collections.

This fascinating conference gave much food for thought, and paved the way for further discussion as to how these technologies can be best incorporated into cultural heritage. The two days also made very clear how 3D Imaging will become essential to the day-to-day life of museums. The future seems very bright with the opportunities that this can and will afford.

The history of copying, its methods and approaches will be explored in the new Cast Courts Interpretation Gallery, opening in Room 46 in November 2018. In the meantime, stay tuned to this blog for more information about how the V&A is exploring digital technology, and click here 

About the author

Decorative Art and Sculpture
December 7, 2017

Becky Knott is Curator of Metalwork, 1900-Now, and is responsible for the care, research and growth of the modern and contemporary metalwork collection. She was previously Lead Curator of the...

More from Becky Knott
2 comments so far, view or add yours


Thank you so much for this fabulous summary. As a scholar in the field who couldn’t make it to this event, I very much appreciate it. As awesome as Twitter is for stalking academic events–summaries like this are way more useful in synthesizing the overarching themes and commenting on conference trends that are less likely to make their way onto ephemeral social media feeds. It’s also incredibly useful as a reference point to convince the powers that be that I ought to attend the next such useful conference/dialogue session. So triple cheers!

Hope I can make it next time! Thank you again!

Thanks for this useful summary. The tweet you post is incredibly apposite, since I am currently arguing with a curator who wants to place a 3D print, created at great expense for public outreach, into collections storage, rather than retaining it in a publically accessible space!

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