Exploring New Dimensions with Art History & Engineering
You never know how far good manners can take you.
That is just one
of the lessons learned from a story that begins with a thank you gift and could
end up positively impacting art lovers and scholars around the world.
It all started at the end of the 2014 fall semester, when Greg Lewis came bearing gifts to his final class of Tyler Jo Smith’s popular course on The Parthenon. In fact, one could make the case that having Lewis in this particular class was a gift in itself. At the time he was a 4th year double majoring in Mechanical Engineering and Classics of all things. “It’s a really random combination,” he said, “but I really like both of those things, so I did both of them.”
Smith immediately saw his potential value in the class. “The Parthenon course is very popular. It fills up in about an hour. I was expecting to have only Art History students, but when I got in there I saw that I had some Classics students, I had a history student, maybe a religious studies student, and then I had Greg from the Engineering School. I thought, ‘Have I got some research projects for you!’ I knew having an engineer in a seminar about the Parthenon was going to add an incredible dimension to the discussion of ancient art and architecture.”
Lewis focused part of his final project on digital modeling of the iconic structure, inspired in part by an earlier art history course he had taken with Bernard Frischer. “His big thing is digital preservation,” Lewis said, “so that class involved using the powerful 3D scanners the library had to scan statues, including the one of Thomas Jefferson in the Rotunda.”
For his final project, he was ready to take another step in the process. “The lab I was working in had a 3D printer readily available,” Lewis said, “and I had printed stuff on it before. So I thought, why not print a cool, 3D miniature of the Parthenon for Dr. Smith?” He also thought about Smith’s interest in and passion for ancient Greek vases. “That is kind of her thing, so I thought I could print one of the vases we talked about in class.” Lewis picked a Panathenaic amphora, a vase that had been awarded to athletes in the Panathenaic Games, an ancient precursor to the modern day Olympics. He scaled the piece down from its original two-and-a-half-foot height to a height of only 10cm.
“I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” Smith said. “The Parthenon model even had some of the decorations from the building on it, and the vase was decorated with the UVA sabre logo. I said, ‘Let’s talk after class about this’.”
In the spring of 2015, Smith and Lewis applied for and received a College Council Grant to put the 3D scanning and printing technology to work. Lewis reached out to Will Rourk at the UVA Library, who was immediately excited by the possibilities. “There is huge potential here to engage in a more open data scenario where the scans that we are making, we are also printing.” In fact, Rourk was already engaged in a similar effort with Monticello, scanning and printing approximately 50 artifacts.
The possibilities of sharing technology that is sure to be more and more essential to the archaeological field excited Smith. “This is going to be a big aspect of managing archaeological data and creating new ways to share information with the outside world and other scholars.” But Smith was looking at it from an entirely different angle. “These are not excavation pieces that I have uncovered,” she said. “Rather, they are museum pieces that have been locked up behind a glass case. So students can look at them but never touch them.” She reached out to Jean Lancaster at The Fralin Museum to start a conversation about potentially using the technology to scan and print pieces in the Museum’s ancient artifacts collection.
In the spring of 2015, Lewis was deep into his Distinguished Majors thesis and preparing to start a Ph.D. program at the Engineering School, while Smith was occupied with a full range of classes and projects. Their work on the project was delayed until the following fall semester. When it finally began, their results were promising enough to receive a Boots Meade grant, an award that is now allowing Smith to work with four undergraduate Archaeology majors who scanned their first pieces earlier this spring with the help of the Library and The Fralin.
“We could not do what we are doing without the Museum,” Smith said. “As an archaeologist, I work with 3 -Dimensional objects. The pottery, especially, is so tactile. It is all about handling and touching. It is very easy to say that the ancient Greeks probably put grain or wine into a vessel. But now we can say, ‘Hey, let’s put some liquid in it and see what it feels like to drink out of these things?’” The group is even working with weighing the pieces to give them a realistic feel.
Smith sees the project’s potential extending far beyond the walls of a museum. “What I would ultimately love to do,” she said, “is to have the Museum put these 3D scanned and printed objects up on their website or even do an exhibition in The Fralin using a computer console and allowing people to go in and manipulate the vase images themselves. “
While Smith has found many fellow archaeologists around the country are using scanning in their work, no one, as far as she knows, is currently employing the technology with Greek vases in this way. To further discuss the possibilities, she is working on plans to present on the topic at a major archaeological conference next year.
The scholarly implications are just as exciting, according to Rourk. “With this collection of printable objects, they could be easily disseminated with the permissions of The Fralin or other museums. They could be easily emailed to somebody across the world who could print them on their own printer. That hasn’t happened yet, but there is potential for it. What this technology does is open up the potential for communicating in 3D – and not only virtual 3D but tangible 3D, thanks to the ubiquity of 3D printers these days.”
Smith’s story – from having Lewis in her class to bringing together a multidisciplinary dream team spanning art, archaeology, engineering, the Museum and the library – owes a good bit of its success to a rare aligning of the stars. “I look for these kinds of opportunities with every student I teach,” Smith said. “I don’t think of myself as the professor with all of this knowledge to be dispensed to them. I am always learning from them as well.”