Dal students build 3D model archive

Laser scanning opens up access to university treasures

Michael Groenendyk prepares a red abalone shell for 3D scanning
Michael Groenendyk prepares to 3D scan a red abalone shell from the Thomas McCulloch Museum’s marine animals collection. (Photo: Chris Putnam)

Michael Groenendyk gingerly places a delicate specimen on the scanning platform.

“When you’re touching it, you should feel nervous,” he says. Some of these objects can’t be replaced.

Over the last year, Groenendyk has joined the short list of people to have handled some of Halifax’s most cherished pieces of history and science: archeological treasures, rare biological specimens, relics from the Halifax explosion and the Titanic. Through his work, he hopes many more people will be able to get as close to these items as he has.

On behalf of the Dalhousie University Library, Groenendyk and his team are building a 3D model repository: an open database filled with three-dimensional scans of interesting objects in the university’s possession. The files can be freely downloaded in their full detail and viewed in most common 3D modelling applications.

Groenendyk is one of the grad students in Dalhousie’s library and information studies program responsible for the Makerbot Replicator installation at the Killam Library, a project that offers cheap 3D printing to students and faculty. While it’s been less visible than the 3D printer, the library’s repository project has wider implications.

The 3D repository currently holds only a handful of files, despite opening nearly a year ago – the 3D printer has absorbed most of the team’s attention. That’s finally changing this month, thanks in part to a new research grant that will fund the work.

At the moment, the team is working on scanning about 30 objects – mostly shells and bones – from the marine biology collection of the university’s Thomas McCulloch Museum. Items from the Dal libraries’ physical archives, including props from old Neptune Theatre plays, will be next. After that, Groenendyk says they’ll tackle “any other projects that come up.”

“It’s about opening up that whole history to a wider audience, making it more accessible,” says Groenendyk. “You won’t need to be within Halifax to come see this marine biology collection. You just need Internet access.”

The work is done on a $3,000 NextEngine laser scanner purchased for the project.

Students are expected to be some of the main users of the repository. In the near future, Groenendyk envisions library patrons checking out 3D anatomy models to go with their medical textbooks, or analyzing the dents and brushstrokes on a piece of pottery at extreme magnification to aid their anthropology studies. Should anyone want to take the objects from the digital realm back into the physical world, every item in the database will be 3D-printable.

The Nova Scotia Museum recognized the educational uses of digital scans when Groenendyk offered to scan portions of their collections last summer. The files he built will be featured on an upcoming website for the museum and may eventually be incorporated into static displays next to the physical originals.

“The average person is going to be able to see these objects in ways that they could never see them before, and often in ways that we can’t even show the real object,” says David Christianson, manager of the museum’s collections unit.

The files even hold enough detail for scientific and historical research. Christianson says his museum is now exploring the possibility of sharing digital scans with researchers around the world to avoid the risk of transporting the fragile originals.

When Groenendyk scanned a fragment of the SS Mont-Blanc, the ship at the centre of the Halifax Explosion, for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, marine history curator Dan Conlin saw the technology’s potential.

Seashell in the process of scanning
Anyone at Dalhousie can use the 3D scanner for free, whether for their own uses or to add to the repository. (Photo: Chris Putnam)

“It wasn’t until I saw the 3D image that I got a real sense of the distortion and the direction of forces that ripped apart those steel fragments,” says Conlin. “I’d never noticed that just holding it in my hands.”

Several major museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, have recently begun 3D digitization of their collections, but Christianson says the concept is “brand new” to Nova Scotia’s museums. Libraries have explored the idea even less.

For Groenendyk, the repository is a logical extension to the role of a library. What ebooks have done for texts, 3D models will do for physical objects. In a digital form, they will be archived, shared and preserved.

“You don’t know, a thousand years from now, how many of these objects will still be around,” he says. “These digital files might stand the test of time.”

Click to interact with the finished 3D model from the above video (large file – approx. 30MB):