Virtual Museum Brings Exclusive Objects to your Fingertips

TAMPA, Fla. – The Cravens Virtual Museum Project is letting the public see dozens of sculptures for free by sharing them online in 3D.

Located in Buffalo, New York, the Cravens Collection was digitized with equipment from the University of South Florida. The collection was then uploaded to the website Sketchfab, an online collection of 3D models. Laura Harrison is the director of the Access 3D Lab and the Cravens Virtual Museum Project.

“The idea of the virtual museum is to really facilitate comparative research and open access research in the digital realm,” Harrison said.

Molly Urnek via GIPHY

Putting a museum collection on an online platform drastically increases its accessibility. Researchers and the general public can see and interact with various artifacts at the touch of a button.

“All you do is click on a model, and it’ll load, and anyone around the world with an internet connection can then see that model in 3D, manipulate it, zoom in, zoom out, take measurements and carry out independent research,” Harrison said.

Molly Urnek via GIPHY

When an artifact sits behind a glass case in a museum, only the people who walk into that museum can see it. But when a file is uploaded to the internet, it is accessible to anyone using the world wide web.

“This is a way to bring a collection that is really an amazing representation of archaeological and ethnographic materials around the world to a global audience without requiring them to travel to see the physical collection in Buffalo, New York,” Harrison said.

The selection of Sketchfab as the location of the virtual museum was a strategic one. Not only can anyone view the objects for free, the site acts as an online public forum, allowing different people to upload content, comment, and connect with other users.

“On Sketchfab, there’s a lot of different communities,” Harrison said. “It’s kind of like a LinkedIn where you can follow people, they can follow you back, and that really enhances the accessibility and the interconnectedness of the heritage community.”

The collection is also available on Augment, an app that allows users to visualize 3D models in the real world. The app allows people to go into the gallery space and scan an object or a QR code. That scan will then link to more information about the artifact.

“So with the Cravens Collection, we did take the models that you see here that are accessible online, and we put them up in Augment, which is an app that allows you to go in the gallery space and scan an object or a QR code and then gain deeper information,” Harrison said.

The Cravens Virtual Museum Project can be brought into the physical realm as well. At USF, and anywhere else with 3D printers, the once digital files can be printed into physical pieces.

“Just physically having something in three dimensions that you can touch really offers a way for researchers, as well as the public, to gain a deeper understanding of what it would have been like to actually use these objects or interact with them during the time in which they were made,” Harrison said.

Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing is relatively inexpensive. Aradia Vargas, a USF student who works in the 3D printing lab, explained how someone could print an object for just a few dollars.

“The bigger it is, the more material we have to use, so the more expensive it’ll be,” Vargas said. “If it’s a small object, it can be like a dollar or three dollars.”

Molly Urnek via GIPHY

Recreating paintings is extremely common, but not so much 3D artifacts. The ability to hold an object that is originally inaccessible to the public can completely change the way research and education are conducted.

“What you gain is the ability to actually touch and feel a museum object that is from really far away, thousands of years old and also located in another city across the country,” Harrison said.

Visiting a museum is a privilege. According to Museums of the World, about 55,000 museums exist in 202 countries, yet the accessibility to them is limited. But now you can see some collections online at sketchfab.com.