The Vindolanda Trust runs two museum sites – the Roman Vindolanda Fort & Museum and the Roman Army Museum – just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.
In October 2021, the museum’s volunteers, customer service staff and the digitisation project officer co-curated Digging up Memories, its first online exhibition.
The project was a collaboration with Teesside University, which supported the project through 3D scanning and printing of artefacts. The exhibition was developed by the trust’s team picking their favourite wooden objects and examining their emotional connections to them.
The online display presents their responses through creative writing, voice recordings and short film clips. 3D models of the chosen artefacts were captured and embedded from Sketchfab to provide additional interactions and responses for the viewer.
The inspiration for the exhibition was developed during the third Covid lockdown in England, with the following aims:
- To democratise the work on the collection by giving access to all members of the Vindolanda team.
- To encourage interaction, a sense of pride in and understanding of the collection.
- To strengthen our team and remove internal barriers through collaboration.
- To reach wider audiences, particularly during a time of travel restrictions.
Context is key
3D scanning enhanced the content and gave the visitor a chance to see a close-up of the object and explore details not visible behind glass.
Object details, such as a wooden bath clog that can be rotated and enlarged as part of the digital display, are often invisible in static physical museum display, so 3D scanning adds value and supports the object’s story.
The object is key, rather than the fact that it has been scanned.
Sketchfab is a viewing platform for 3D models, which means objects can become isolated from their wider meaning. We recognised the need for interpretation and meaningful engagement of our online collections, so we hosted the exhibition on our website to maintain the context and narrative of Vindolanda.
We applied the same ethics and principles of interpretation as we would to a physical exhibition. However, digital displays pose a new challenge to the curator: caring and taking responsibility for artefacts that are on show 24 hours a day.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was used as a model for Digging up Memories, as its online collections are all presented on its website alongside contextual information and are curated into themes or narratives.
For the Vindolanda’s online exhibition, we offered different “galleries” for visitors to explore, such as 'On the Move' and 'Waterways'.
We opened the show with a virtual launch and uploaded new content over the following three months to encourage the audience to revisit the exhibition and keep visitor numbers high.
We also ran an online lecture series about the wooden objects, as well as visitor engagement days on-site.
Most of the artefacts showcased are on display at Vindolanda and a substantial selection of digital artefacts were 3D-printed for public handling. The 3D prints worked extremely well to embed narratives; our visitors enjoyed spotting the details and became curious to find the originals in the museum.
Interviews with participants at the start and end of the project showed that the co-curation broadened their skill set, especially through being filmed and writing exhibition content. And it was noticeable that members of the staff and volunteers started to have lunch together, developing friendships.
Challenges and opportunities
A significant challenge was finding time for the customer service staff to contribute, especially when lockdown ended and the visitors returned to the museum. In hindsight, additional budget for including further input from staff would have enabled stronger contributions from the customer service team.
Other challenges included the restrictions of our website infrastructure, which meant that some visitors found navigation through the exhibition difficult. It has also been difficult to evaluate qualitative responses to visitor engagement in the current format. In future, we would look to develop a standalone website that linked into our existing one.
The exhibition will be moved to our learning section on the website and the content digitally archived. The 3D printed objects have joined our handling collections and will be used in future public engagement days.
This experience has helped not only the Vindolanda Trust to gain valuable experience and break barriers within our team but also encouraged us to embed digital media across all areas of work and look towards a blending of physical and digital content for the future.
The project was part of the wider Wood Digitisation Project funded by Arts Council England. The exhibition cost of £3,000 included 3D printing of artefacts, exhibition banners at the museum, marketing, training in filming and editing, and purchasing filming equipment.
Anneke-Susan Hackenbroich is the digitisation project officer at the Vindolanda Trust and Rhys Williams is a lecturer in forensic science at Teesside University