Emotions in 3D: digital modelling at the museum

Burke's hat.jpg
William Burke’s hat, one of the objects in the Emotions3D collection (Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum).

By Associate Investigator Jane-Heloise Nancarrow

As I took a meticulous series of photographs – dozens from every angle – of a fur and leather cap in the collection of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, I was focused on capturing the full detail of the physical artefact. It was a heavy object designed for everyday wear in the Scottish cold, though it is now worn with age. But beyond its material properties lurked a dark past, beset with strong emotional responses: this cap belonged to nineteenth-century serial murderer William Burke.

Suppressing my own feelings of discomfort, revulsion and sadness when holding the hat which had sat atop the head of a serial killer, I contemplated the emotional reactions of those who had handled this object throughout history. I also wondered whether the final product of my efforts, a three-dimensional digital reproduction, would evoke a similar sense of disgust.

The purpose of my January visit to museums around the UK was to record artefacts in museums and heritage collections for my project as an Associate Investigator with the Centre. This project, Emotions3D, creates photorealistic three-dimensional replicas for a new digital resource for the history of emotions.

The models are intended for use by researchers and the public alike, and comprise an exciting array of cultural heritage objects which will be available to view online in an interactive 3D format. Some of these models can also be 3D-printed, and all of them will be viewable in virtual reality using an inexpensive Google Cardboard headset. In this blog post, I want to tell you a bit more about this project and how you can get involved, as well as interrogate some interesting themes in the emerging field of 3D objects and emotions.

3D printed Pictish Cross-slabs.jpg
3D-printed models of Pictish Cross slabs used by the author in a university teaching exercise in 2015.

Emotions3D fits within a global movement in the museums and cultural heritage sector which embraces technologies such as laser scanning and photogrammetry (also known as structure-from-motion modelling). Originally used for conservation purposes, many curatorial and outreach staff now use 3D modelling to enhance kinaesthetic or immersive engagement with their collections.

Events held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum have used unconventional ‘Hackathon’ exercises and crowd-sourced public outreach to create photogrammetric digital assets. Coupled with large-scale 3D installations and downloadable, 3D-printable digital files, these activities show that museums are increasingly reworking their collections and spaces using 3D technology.[1] Historical research into ‘affect’ and ‘emotions’ dovetails neatly with these experiential aims. 3D digital models add a literal extra dimension to traditional museum catalogues which might, at best, feature a static high-quality photograph of each object.

Google Cardboard user.jpg
Mobile phone applications for cultural heritage can potentially be used with the interactive Google Cardboard VR viewer.

Emotions3D interrogates Walter Benjamin’s ideas of ‘reproduction’, and what it is that makes objects real. I’m interested in how to create replicas in a historically sensitive and meaningful way, and whether we can encapsulate the essence of an object when a digital model is incomplete.

The archaeologist, Richard Bayliss, argues that 3D digital replicas and their associated methodologies should serve as heuristic tools rather than uncritical visualisation media.[2] Most importantly, I want to know whether can we replicate or influence emotional responses to an object using new forms of media. Do 3D objects communicate ideas around the history of emotions more effectively than conventional engagement in museums?

The artefacts in the Emotions3D project, drawn from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Keats’ House, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and the Stirling Smith Museum and Gallery, all reflect key emotional ‘themes’. While several objects I have been working with have their own grisly histories – ranging from a WWI German bayonet blade to an executioner’s cloak, surgical instruments, medieval armour and weaponry – others reveal brighter concerns. Objects of love such as engagement rings, statues of lovers and small tokens of affection jostle with everyday items which bring joy or reflect pleasurable pastimes. These include ornate drinking vessels and puzzle jugs, toys and teething implements, and the accoutrements of embroidery and sewing (see below for a link to the full collection).

Originally, the objects selected for the Emotions3D collection were grouped according to their capacity to evoke fear, disgust, love and joy, but this quickly developed into a more nuanced understanding of how emotional responses to material objects change over time.

Objects and their emotional responses often defy classification. The complexities surrounding ‘emotional objects’ are better understood along a spectrum, or within a cluster. Objects can also be grouped according to more developed responses, such as anticipation; clearly an expression of fear or excitement but with an added temporal element of a response to an event which has not yet taken place. By Charles Altieri’s classification of affect, ‘anticipation’ fits within both schemes of ‘mood’ (modes of feeling which pervades a situation) and ‘emotion’ (which establish a particular cause – albeit in the future).[3]

Some objects in the collection are tinged with pathos, such as the wooden prosthetic leg designed for a child at St Bart’s Hospital, or the teething rattle of a baby who might have grown into an adult, but would nonetheless have passed away over 400 years ago.

The view from underneath: three-dimensionality in Japanese Netsuke carvings

Although museums organise handling days where visitors can manually hold items from cultural heritage collections, most of the time objects remain on shelves within glass cases (if they are not tucked away in long-term storage!).

How can we appreciate these items up close? And what happens when an object has important detail on its underside? 3D digital models reveal important artistic features which would be missed if visitors aren’t able to capitalise on limited opportunities to handle objects.

Japanese Netsuke, carved figures of bone, wood or ivory, were designed to be carried in the hand as a counterweight to purses worn at the waist of Japanese kimono. Netsuke articulate jokes or humourous episodes from Japanese mythology or folklore and were often sculpted on all sides. Their exquisite carvings were designed to delight anyone who took the time to examine their intricate detail.

Drag and rotate the Japanese Netsuke of Stirling Smith Museum with your mouse.

In this Netsuke model, typically obscured parts of the object, such as delicately carved toes, a carefully patterned robe and a possible craftsman’s marking, are revealed in 3D. More detailed examination of the three fighting figures also exposes their highly emotive expressions. At first guess, these may represent common Japanese themes of ‘weepy, rowdy and rough’, or three blind men brawling, making them highly suitable for further research in an emotional objects collection. When we view these objects in their totality, with a full 3D rotation, we can more easily access and understand the emotional interplay of these objects in the past and continuing today.

On heads and footballs: digital curating in 3D

The power of digital technology to disrupt conventional exhibition space is well-established and documented. Ruth B. Phillips tells us that digital heritage can ‘unmoor’ material forms from their surroundings and offer novel forms of revitalisation, reintegration and possession.[4] Instead of grouping objects according to established taxonomies of form or function, digital technologies create unusual connections using new methods of classification. Tate Liverpool, for example, offers the potential for users to digitally ‘curate’ their own collections, generating links between artefacts according to visitor preferences and social or emotional responses.[5]

Heads and footballs.jpg
Items in Emotions3D. Wooden dummy used to demonstrate the practice of trephining (St Bartholomew Hospital Museum and Archive) and the world’s oldest football (Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum).

Two items in the Emotions3D collection are unlikely bedfellows. The first is the ‘world’s oldest football’, recovered from the rafters of the queen’s chamber of Stirling Castle immediately prior to the installation of a new roof in the 1540s. The other item is a nineteenth-century wooden dummy in the shape of a head from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, scarred with drill marks that demonstrate the surgical practice of trephining. The dummy also bears other signs of wear; heavy dents and scratches which were possibly due to its use as a football. Despite their very different original functions, at some point these two objects were used as items of play, and may have produced similar emotional reactions of joy from their users.

Yet the head, and its cumbersome, less natural shape, may have invited additional responses as a makeshift or repurposed object. The rounded material form of this dummy allowed for the shift in function. It acquired new meanings and emotional reactions from users, linking it with another object from which it was previously separated on the grounds of geography and chronology. Ultimately, it is these new relational meanings, and their shared emotional responses, which form the basis of a digital connection between the two disparate objects.

Similarly, digital exhibition can sometimes better articulate relationships between material and literary culture. Presenting objects and texts in digital form erodes traditional disciplinary boundaries and lets us examine their interplay in new ways.

From the Keats’ House collection, the model of Keats’ open copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy displays Keats’ heavy underlining of the passage ‘He that will avoid trouble should avoid the world’. This intersects closely with Keats’ poetic focus on melancholy. The statue of Lamia and Lycius from the digital collection also functions as a material expression of Keats’ engagement with the Anatomy of Melancholy (the description of the fable appears as a short passage towards the end of the text), as well as an important object around which to understand Keats’ own poetic composition of ‘Lamia’. This interaction of digital form, disciplinarity and appropriation presents many interesting opportunities for further research.

Get involved!

Here is a full list of all of the objects I selected in consultation with curatorial staff and the CHE Education and Outreach Officers, ranging chronologically from 1300 to the early nineteenth century. If you are interested in becoming involved, either as a researcher or content writer to annotate the digital models, or simply to learn more about digital modelling, please get in touch. I would also love to hear from anyone working with objects or museums and heritage in their research.

There are many tangible benefits from structuring research and learning around digital education tools, so if you would like to use these models in your teaching or learning exercises, I will try to assist.

What next for Emotions3D?

The remainder of 2016 will be spent processing the models in the Emotions3D collection, devising content and developing new ways to integrate this content further in a digital space. I hope to develop the collection into a 3D mobile phone app with audio soundscapes. You can follow the project on my personal Twitter or using #Emotions3D.

Jane-Heloise Nancarrow is a 2016 CHE Associate Investigator and a Research Associate of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York. Jane-Heloise graduated from her Bachelor of Arts (History and Politics) at the University of Western Australia in 2007 and undertook a MA in Medieval Studies in 2008. She was awarded her PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of York in 2014. Her main research interests encompass three-dimensional digital modelling and visualisation from photogrammetry in cultural heritage. Jane-Heloise has participated in a number of public outreach activities, including an internship with the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, consulting for the Churches Conservation Trust on the St Lawrence’s Heritage Conservation Project, presenting her doctoral research on BBC radio, and most recently, co-founding the AVRL Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Western Australia.


[1] Metropolitan Museum of Art, ‘3D Hackathon’, 2000–15: http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/features/2012/high-tech-met/3-d-hackathon (accessed 14.12.2015).

[2] Richard Bayliss, ‘Archaeological Survey and Visualisation: The View from Byzantium’, in Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology, ed. Luke Lavan and William Bowden (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 288–89.

[3] Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 2.

[4] Phillips, Ruth B. ‘The Digital (R)Evolution of Museum-Based Research’, in Museum Pieces Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums, ed. Ruth B. Phillips (London: Queen’s University Press, 2011), pp. 277–96.

[5] Tate Liverpool, ‘Make your own Imagined Museum’, 2015: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/works-know-heart-imagined-museum/make-your-own-imagined-museum (accessed 30.03.2016).

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