How Can we Succesfully Combine Heritage Artefacts and Digital Technology?

Smart Replicas – a Dutch case study. Desiger Maaike Roozenburg is replicating museum artefacts using medical CT scan technology and 3D printing. The 3D printed objects are then enhanced with digital information, which turns them into smart objects. The results are fascinating and point towards the direction meSch is heading into: tangible interaction with multiple layers of digital information. Reason enough to invite the innovative Dutch designer to the March edition of the Virtual Museum Network Amsterdam Meetup. The aim of this event is to bring together heritage professionals, developers and researchers to discuss issues related to digital heritage innovation. Just like meSch, the Smart Replica project is driven by a designer and has some more parallels to meSch, which prove to be fertile ground for meSch related discussions.

Tangible objects with memories

First, Maaike gave a little insight in the way she uses  heritage as an inspiration for her design practice. From a museum perspective it was interesting to discover how she approached the objects as a designer.  Starting with the tangible object Maaike explores themes such as memory, emotions, usage and wear and tear. These are subjects that museums often find challenging, although more and more museums attempt to incorporate them into their displays.

In some of her projects Maaike changes the shape of the replicated objects to highlight their use or specific features. But for Smart Replicas Maaike aimed to create copies that were not only as detailed as possible, but that also incorporated the blemishes and damage to the original objects. She did this to highlight the fact that the object had not always been inside a glass museum case, but was once handled, used and maybe even dropped.

image of a ceramic vase, a broken glass vase and a smartphone

Unobtrusive technology

The Smart Replicas are intended to transfer information to the person holding them and Maaike’s research can be divided in two parts. On the one hand there is the technical side of replication and somehow linking the objects to the digital information. She found that incorporating QR codes in objects that could be read with handheld devices, such as smartphones, was too crude an approach. She then  experimented with using the original decoration of the object as a marker for an AR application on a smartphone. This seemed to work very well and is a great example of linking data to an object in an unobtrusive way.

Bridging the gap between past and present

The March Meetup’s audience consisted of people with backgrounds in digital media, museums, heritage and libraries and initially the discussion and questions focussed on on-gallery use. How could a smart object be used in a museum context? Could it guide people through the museum, or trigger certain information based in the way it’s used? Maaike’s main interest, however, is bringing these precious objects back into everyday lives. She envisages the objects (her main focus momentarily lies on 7 cups and saucers) being taken from the museum and into the home where they can continue being used in the same way the original objects were used. Only about 5% of a museum’s collection of tableware is ever on exhibition. “And even then they are presented in small glass cabinets with tiny pieces of card giving a visitor minimal information. It is such a pity because these objects were not made to be shown in a museum, but to be used.”, says Roozenburg.

In this context mapping and sharing the user’s story might be interesting to bridge the gap between past and present use of the object. Of course, for meSch usage, data collected and stored by the Smart Object could be useful for both audience research and personalisation purposes. Besides this, Maaike’s focus on the life of both the actual object and replica is an innovative way make the Smart Object into something beyond the ‘fancy remote controll’ or ‘oddly shaped smartphone’ that it so easily could become. A challenge the meSch team will also have to tackle in the nearby future.

More on upcoming Meetups

The Virtual Museum Network Amsterdam Meetup is organized every eight weeks and hosted by the Heritage Lab of the University of Amsterdam and meSch partner Allard Pierson Museum. The aim of this event is to bring together heritage professionals, developers and researchers to discuss issues related to digital heritage innovation.

More on Smart Replicas

The Smart Replica project is currently a collaboration with Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (http://www.boijmans.nl/en/)  and was made possible by Stichting Doen. The research is still in progress, updates will be posted on http://smartreplicas.blogspot.nl/
Read the article ‘Smart Replicas – bringing heritage back to life’ (pdf) that was featured in theARLab magazine.

More on Maaike Roozenburg

Moer about her work can be found at http://www.maaikeroozenburg.nl/ Another part of her research involves exploring the different types of content that can be shared with users and shape this content can take. She is currently exploring the possibilities of sharing historical content through non-text based media.