A practical guide to creating museum visualisations

With the importance of technology in society, museums have to seriously consider how they are present in the digital world. …
Digital
Kirsty Earley
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With the importance of technology in society, museums have to seriously consider how they are present in the digital world.

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have made it evident that not only do museums need an online presence, they need to be able to engage effectively with their public online.

Digital engagement revolves around communication and interaction, just like a physical museum exhibition. Communication online is natural, but interaction is harder to achieve.

This is where visualisation can play an important role.

Visualisation is a blanket term for methods of communicating information through a visual means. Historically this has involved static images, such as charts or graphs, but now has evolved to include more movement and control.

So, how can museums visualise the history they preserve?

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow undertook a two-year visualisation project through Museums Galleries Scotland’s (MGS) Museums Development Fund. With a small team and limited museum space, Visualising Medical Heritage aimed to increase accessibility to collections virtually and provide collection interaction online.

This project encompassed several visualisation techniques that are affordable and possible to use for any staff number. The following tips can be used as a practical guide to kick-start visualisation in any cultural institution, big or small.

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Any project should sit on the foundation of a solid plan. The main thing to ask before starting a project is “why”? The temptation can be to create products for the sake of it, rather than to increase accessibility and interactivity with heritage.

Visualisation products should be used to create a learning environment that will have a lasting impact on visitors.  

The next step is to decide what to visualise. Start with a small group of items that are core to your collection and build from there. Time will be required to figure out a visualisation workflow, so don’t make things harder by having a high target number.The vast array of visualisation techniques can be a blessing and a curse – a never-ending list to choose from.

The main methods in the cultural sector today include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Photography
  • Photogrammetry 
  • Animation
  • Virtual and augmented reality

The challenge is deciding which best meets your requirements, timescale and platform. Photography and photogrammetry are the most common approaches.

Photography is the easiest way to visualise a museum collection, and a group of high-quality photographs can change the online visitor experience.  

The issue that may arise with photography is the quality of the photo captured. It is important to know the basic staples of photography (exposure, aperture, focus, ISO).Most smartphones have options to control exposure and focus, which will help to capture a crisp image. Digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLR), while less accessible, may give you more control over your image settings.

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Take time to perfect capturing high-quality images of your items to reflect the quality of the stories they tell.

Photogrammetry is the 3D version of 2D photography – an individual takes a series of photographs around an object in a 360° manner, then compiles them together to form a 3D digital model. A simple setup of a light tent, LED lights, DSLR camera, tripod, and a lazy Susan can produce amazing results.
Photogrammetry won’t work well for some material types (glass and metal) but is a great option for others (stone statues).

3D models can be uploaded to Sketchfab, an online platform allowing you to venture into museum collections virtually. The augmented reality plugin on the Sketchfab app allows you to bring historical items to your immediate surroundings.

Although photogrammetry takes some practice, it is an achievable mode of visualisation that all museums can use.

Visualisation projects aren’t restricted to large cultural institutions with large budgets. Technology has never been cheaper (some may already be present in your institution) and a lot of processing software for photography or photogrammetry offer license discounts to educational institutions, including museums.

Visualising Medical Heritage was funded through MGS’s Museums Development Fund, allowing the College to employ a part-time project officer. The result of this funding was the development of 120 visualisation products, which were showcased to thousands of people through a series of engagement events. With a team of three covering the whole heritage department, this project is evidence that visualisation doesn’t have to be limited to staff size.

It has never been more important for cultural institutions to have some form of presence in the online world. That presence can be enhanced by using visualisation products to allow the public to interact not only with museums, but with history itself. Visualisation is open to all, so don’t be afraid to give it a go.

Kirsty Earley is the digital learning officer at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

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