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VCU Archaeology

Exhibiting the 3D Printed Past: Archaeology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

by Bernard K. Means, Director

Last year I was approached by Dr. Elizabeth Moore, Curator of Archaeology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), with the idea that the Virtual Curation Laboratory could contribute to a new archaeology exhibit scheduled to open in September 2015.  This was a fortuitous request, as I was developing a new course that would teach my Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students how to visualize and exhibit anthropological concepts, entitled, appropriately enough, Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology (Visualzing). I wanted to teach this course in order to capitalize on the hundreds of artifacts and ecofacts from all over the world 3D scanned and 3D printed in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, and provide my students with additional skills that would aid them in their future studies and careers.

Dr. Moore, right, and a museum volunteer examine the draft exhibit panels and associated 3D printed replicas.

Dr. Moore, far right, and two museum volunteers examine the draft exhibit panels and associated 3D printed replicas.

With Dr. Moore’s generous offer, students enrolled in the Visualizing course would be designing and contributing elements to an actual exhibit, rather than an imaginary museum. After some discussion, Dr. Moore and I decided that the course would focus on creating roughly a dozen panels that would feature text and images provided largely by the students themselves, and that 3D printed artifacts and ecofacts would be incorporated into the panels–and accompanying activities–to add a tactile as well as visual component to the exhibit panels.  Many of the artifacts and ecofacts featured were 3D scanned at VMNH, but also from museums located throughout the eastern U.S.–and even one artifact from India. I was fortunate to also receive funding from the Academic Learning Transformation (ALT) Lab to teach Visualizing, as well as access to an active learning space with a dry erase wall.

Brenna Geraghty writes on our classroom wall.

Brenna Geraghty writes on our classroom wall.

As we made our way through the Spring 2015 semester, and weathered winter snow events that closed VCU for a combined total of two weeks, my VCU students–two History majors and ten  Anthropology majors–engaged in spirited debates over which dozen concepts warranted incorporation into the planned VMNH archaeology exhibit–out of more than 30 ideas that I had roughly outlined before the semester began. Selection of the dozen concepts did not end discussion, as the students debated: 1) the titles for each panel; 2) how best to present each concept in three or four sentences written at a requested 8th-grade level; and 3) which artifact or ecofact replicas best helped get the concepts across.  Probably the most challenging aspect of this process for most of the students was formulating text that could be readily understood not just by a middle school audience, but people of all ages.  The dozen panels developed by the students consisted of the following titles (and tag lines):

  1. Title: What is archaeology? Takeaway: Archaeologists are time travelers who explore the human past.
  2. Title: Discovering Places of the Past. Takeaway: Archaeologists investigate places where they find objects that are evidence of past human activity.
  3. Title: Talking Trash. Takeaway:  Archaeologists study items people threw away to learn about everyday activities in the past.
  4. Title: Telling Time with Plants is A-maize-ing. Takeaway: Archaeologists use plants to date archaeological sites and learn about past environments.
  5. Title: After the Dig: What Comes Next? Takeaway: An artifact’s journey begins at discovery.
  6. Title: Teaching the Past. Takeaway: An important part of doing archaeology is sharing discoveries with the public.
  7. Title: Zooarchaeology. Takeaway: Why Zoorchaeologists Study Animal Bones Found at Archaeological Sites.
  8. Title: What’s for dinner? Takeaway: People in Virginia ate a variety of animals before and after European settlers arrived.
  9. Title: The World of Nature. Takeaway: How humans relate to their natural world provides clues to past behaviors and practices.
  10. Title: Across Time and Space. Takeaway: Artifacts can give us a peek into the human past all over the globe.
  11. Title: Found in Virginia. Takeaway: Archaeology is happening all around us.
  12. Title: A Voice for the Voiceless. Takeaway: As we try to uncover Virginia history, often times we only hear about those who had the opportunity to write it down.
  13. Title: Oh, No! There Are bugs in my Hair!!!! Takeaway Sentence:  Just like today, people in the past were concerned with their hair, health, and hygiene.
  14. Title: Art in Archaeology. Takeaway: Humans in the past have used art to communicate and express themselves.
  15. Title: Telling Time with Stone. Takeaway: How archaeologists Use Stone Tools to Find the Age of Archaeological Sites

If you’re keeping count, this is, of course, a dozen panels plus 3.  We, as a class, could not actually winnow our 30+ concepts down to just a dozen. The titles and number of panels will likely change as VMNH staff and exhibit designers begin to fabricate the panels themselves.  To facilitate this process, I traveled to VMNH on May 28 and 29, 2015, to discuss the exhibit panels with Dr. Moore and Jessica Davenport, VMNH’s Exhibits and Publications Manager.

VMNH staff discussing the exhibit

VMNH staff discussing the exhibit

We were ably assisted by VMNH Museum Technician Brenna Geraghty, a VCU student working at VMNH for the summer who also took the Visualizing course and is a past intern in the Virtual Curation Laboratory. Brenna will help carry the exhibit through completion, including painting some of the replicas that will go on the panels–she is especially talented in creating replicas that closely resemble the real items–especially if viewed at a distance of three inches or more.

Brenna Geraghty with her official museum ID.

Brenna Geraghty with her official museum ID.

I came with hundreds of printed artifact and ecofact replicas, as well as a list of objects that have not yet been printed, but might be suitable for the exhibit.  I also brought along one of our lab’s 3D printers. Other than a problem with an ill-timed power outage, was able to actually print some of the objects need for the exhibit panels, or associated activities.

A 76% completed print.

A 76% completed print of a World War I doughboy figurine recovered archaeologically at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

A 3D printed World War I doughboy figurine recovered archaeologically at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest.

A successfully 3D printed World War I doughboy figurine recovered archaeologically at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

We decided that some of the printed replicas were fine as they were, but that others should be modified so that they could be more easily mounted–this is especially true for the panel featuring a map of the world.  Objects placed on this map will be digitally edited so that they have a flat back–something easily done in the free MeshMixer program–and then printed.  VCU students working in the Virtual Curation Laboratory will work on creating these replicas, including printing and painting them, and they can then be mailed to VMNH–something that would be possible if we were dealing with real objects from Jamestown, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Poplar Forest, Mount Vernon, and other historically and culturally significant places.

Brenna Geraghty contemplates the artifacts selected for the world of archaeology panel

Brenna Geraghty contemplates the artifacts selected for the world of archaeology panel

In future posts, I or one of the other people involved with the VMNH archaeology exhibit will provide updates on the progress of exhibit creation. A future post will also examine a paleontology exhibit at VMNH that is incorporating materials 3D printed by the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

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2 thoughts on “Exhibiting the 3D Printed Past: Archaeology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

  1. Looks good!

    Posted by Rebecca Guest | May 31, 2015, 10:01 pm

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