by Bernard K. Means, director
On Friday, December 5, 2014, I traveled to our nation’s capital with undergraduate Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) student members of the Virtual Archaeology Scanning Team (VAST). VAST is a VCU student club designed for individuals interested in virtual archaeology, and designed to enable Anthropology majors and non-Anthropology students alike to interact with the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL). Many VAST members are either currently or were recently VCL interns.
The goal of our excursion was to meet with Deborah Hull-Walski, a Smithsonian anthropologist, who gave us a tour of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) Q?rius educational laboratory.
Q?rius is designed to be very much a hands-on facility that has multiple stations, many equipped with microscopes and other analytical tools that enable young scholars to explore a wider variety of objects. The objects represent all facets of the collections and associated research conducted by NMNH scientists. The Q in Q?rius comes from the use of QR (quick response codes) to guide individuals as they move through and interact with objects in the Q?rius laboratory.
When you enter Q?rius, you pick up a Q-card, sort of an oversized business card, that has a QR code on the back. The QR code allows one to create a digital fieldbook to store objects and media, and one can access these items after one leaves NMNH. According to the Q?rius site:
The Office of Education and Outreach has educational collections, which have been created from many sources over the past 35 years, including: objects transferred from the Museum’s research collections, donations and gifts, purchases, and field collecting. Making our data publicly accessible includes creating photographs of each specimen or object, and digitizing existing data as well as enhancing catalog records. The data are drawn from many sources, including original field notes, catalog records, acquisition documentation, and staff contributions.
Individual objects are organized by collection and object type in drawers that young scholars can open, and remove the object, with each object in a separate transparent plastic box. Each box has an attached tag with a QR code that can be read at a monitor with an attached QR code reader, taking the young scholars to detailed information, photographs, and multimedia about the object. The monitors also have a way to access information about some of the larger objects that are displayed along one wall, out of physical reach of the scholars.
The objects that can be handled, at least in their boxes, are color coded. Objects coded with green can be removed from the box without assistance, those with a yellow code need help from one of the volunteers or employees working in the Q?rius lab, and red indicates objects that cannot be removed from their transparent boxes.
I can certainly state that the VAST members found the Q?rius laboratory engaging as well as being educational, and were amazed at the wide range of materials that could be touched and examined in microscopic detail. Many of the VAST members are also taking my new Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology class in the fall, and I suspect they were as inspired as I was by this fantastic educational facility.
Seeing Q?rius brought to mind a recent question asked by Robert Connolly of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in his blog post: Public Access to Artifacts: A Problem or Opportunity? In this post, Robert Connolly wonders whether he and his team should use curated educational collections in their new hands-on Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab (BADLab) that have no provenience information. The items in these educational collections could be potentially lost, damaged, or even stolen, and many archaeologists and collections managers shudder at the thought of what can happen to an object in a hands-on laboratory. We know unprovenienced collections have research value. Yet, as Robert Connolly asks, does the potential research value of unprovenienced collections trump their educational value? I recommend you visit Robert Connolly’s blog for his discussion of this and other important issues related to archaeology, museums and cultural heritage locations.
I will say that my visit to Q?rius makes me realize that, properly handled, an educational collection has tremendous value for the public. Of course, another possibility, and one that we are working with in the VCL with our partners in museums and at other cultural heritage locations is to create 3D scans of actual artifacts, and then 3D prints that can be shared–even if the later are lost, damaged, or stolen, a replacement can be readily made. This is not the same as handling the real object, but, for many people, being one step removed from a culturally significant object is more than sufficient.