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VCU Archaeology

Brentrance and Brexit

by Bernard K. Means

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Suitcase packed with replicas of two human  skulls and assorted Kushan-era figurines ready for trip to North India.

When I started this post, I was sitting in the Indira Gandhi International Airport waiting for a flight to take me back to Virginia. Here, I will write not about the end of my latest trip to India, but rather its beginning.

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I decided to break up my long flight to India by an extended stay in London. I left Virginia in the evening of May 8 and arrived in London early on the morning of May 9. This was actually my third trip to London, but unlike the previous two, I would be here for a few days rather than a long afternoon. One simply cannot do justice to the British Museum and its rich trove of cultural treasures in a single afternoon, as I had done on the previous trips. Even more egregious was my very first visit to London, where my wife and I divided an afternoon between the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). I did a little preparation for this visit. I downloaded a guide to London onto my tablet–to which I never referred–and brought along a 3D printed version of an Aztec fire serpent sculpture that I downloaded from the British Museum’s Sketchfab site.

 

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3D printed replica of Aztec fire serpent compared to the original.

My reason for this extended stay was twofold. First, I wanted to spend more time at the two aforementioned museums, and perhaps also go to the Natural History Museum–the latter of which is across Exhibition Road (great name) from the V&A. I was seeking inspiration and examples that I could incorporate into the Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology course I teach each spring at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Second, I wanted to have an extended discussion about public archaeology with Jamie Larkin. Last year, Jamie invited me to write a forthcoming profile for the journal Public Archaeology about the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL). 

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Covent Garden station along the London Underground.

My flight arrived early in the morning of May 9 and, after an interminable wait to get through British customs, I was soon taking the Piccadilly line of the London Underground to the Covent Garden metro stop. My hotel, the British Museum, and Jamie’s office were all in close proximity to this stop. Along the hour journey, I reread some of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which focuses on a magical world beneath London’s streets–and where some of the Underground stations I was traveling through take on an alternative and sometimes sinister nature. My trip was uneventful, although my suitcase did have issues “Minding the Gap” when I disembarked at the Covent Garden stop.
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I dropped off this recalcitrant suitcase at the Morgan Hotel, as I had arrived too early to check into my room. I then headed off to meet Jamie at his office along Gordon Square. Fortunately, Jamie came down to the lobby where his office is located. His building has been converted from a previous life as residential in nature and it was quite a maze of doorways and stairs to travel through from the lobby. In fact, the next day I was to meet Jamie again in his office and, armed with his office number, and a seemingly clear memory of where his office was located, I headed up from the lobby, wandered around for 15 or 20 minutes, and finally conceded defeat–I returned to the lobby and had the guard call Jamie to come fetch me. But, back to our first in-person meeting.

Jamie and I went off to a local coffee shop to talk about public archaeology. I focused more on technological aspects that I see integral to public archaeology (e.g. 3D scanning and 3D printing). Jamie discussed his research into the role of gift shops as an extension of the mission of museums–enabling the public to take home with them some aspect of the objects and exhibits they had just experienced. Museums are also using digital archaeology to extend their missions beyond their walls–the aforementioned British Museum Sketchfab site, for example, and that of the VCL as well–and I’ve managed to expand our digital archive as part of this visit to London.
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After a bit of coffee and conversation, we made the short walk to the British Museum–entering through the back of the Museum, where the line was considerably shorter than through the iconic front entrance. This tip was handy over the next couple of days for my subsequent return visits to the British Museum. Jamie was kind enough to get me a pass to the The American Dream: Pop to the Present special exhibition, where I spent much of that afternoon’s visit. I also made a quick pass through the Museum, strategizing how I might approach my return visits the next two days. And, I paid homage to the Rosetta Stone, which amazingly was not mobbed as it usually is.

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The next morning, still being somewhat on East Coast U.S. time, and awake well before any museums opened, I decided to walk down to see the iconic clock tower known as Big Ben. Along the way, I passed through Trafalgar Square with its statue of Admiral Nelson high atop a pillar. My walk through the streets of London–and particularly through the Square–really gave a sense of the Empire that was once ruled from this city. I brought along with me the very portable Structure Scanner and the iPad Mini needed to operate it.

After doing the touristy thing and taking probably too many pictures of Big Ben, I took a walk along the Thames River. Here, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the park benches lining the river walk consisted of paired sphinxes made of iron with the seating part of the bench made of wooden slats.

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I used the Structure Scanner to 3D scan the sphinx part of the bench, which I later modified using Meshmixer to create a free-standing sculpture, which you can be download here. I also 3D scanned a portion of the Battle of Britain Monument, commemorating the German attacks on London during World War II.

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As the magic hour of 10 am approached when museums awakened from their slumber, I headed to the Westminster Underground station and took the District Line to the South Kensington station, which was close to both the Natural History Museum and the V&A. I decided to start with the Natural History Museum, as I had not been here before. The items exhibited are too numerous to recount here, but I was taken by the human evolution exhibit that greets you as you first enter the museum. Both paleontological and archaeological items are present throughout this exhibit, and I used the Structure Scanner to 3D scan a recreation of Homo heidelbergensis.

The Natural History Museum also has the most complete stegosaurus skeleton known to exist, and part of the exhibit associated with this skeleton includes a touchable component consisting of casts of a tail spike and one of the iconic dorsal plates. These and other items that I 3D scanned can be manipulated through the VCL Sketchfab site here. Part of the Museum was closed as a major exhibit hall was being renovated and, with the crowds of school children growing seemingly exponentially minute-by-minute, I decided after a couple of hours to cross the Exhibition Road to the V&A.

After I entered this wondrous fine arts museum, I made my way to the Weston Cast Court. Jamie Larkin had suggested that I would find the Cast Court of interest, as these represented over a century of reproductions used to populate various past exhibit galleries at the V&A. 3D scanning and 3D printing in the museum are in many ways an extension of this practice–albeit one that has more democratic possibilities, since 3D scans can be readily shared via the internet.

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3D scan of cast of Henry VII sculpture that covers his actual grave in Westminster Abbey

I used the Structure Scanner on a number of items in the Weston Cast Court, as well as throughout the V&A. These can be viewed here.

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The V&A also had at least one touchable exhibit element–a Ming Dynasty sculpture that dated to around 1600 AD. I took a tea break in V&A’s delightful cafe. I learned from Jamie that the V&A was the first museum to have a dedicated dining place for museum visitors.

I soon found myself back on the Underground and set out to spend the afternoon at the British Museum.

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Emboldened by my use of the Structure Scanner throughout the earlier parts of the day, I wandered around the British Museum looking at the exhibits and working to 3D scan a cross-section of human history.

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Aztec rattlesnake sculpture from the British Museum.

Items behind glass were challenging and sometimes impossible to 3D scan, while free-standing sculptures usually posed no issue–other than having to work around people wandering through the exhibit halls. The Structure Scanner does allow one to work quickly, which meant that I only impacted other museum visitors at best for a few minutes while I completed a 3D scan. I was basically using the Structure Scanner as a 3D camera, creating in many cases files that could not be 3D printed but that could at least be viewed in 3D on the VCL’s Sketchfab site. There have been quite a number of items captured in 3D from the British Museum, some of which can be 3D printed.

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I left the British Museum shortly before closing and made my way to Jamie’s office–this is where I sought but failed to locate his work place. At his request (and my encouragement), I 3D scanned Jamie before we headed off to have some dinner and then a pint of draft beer at a converted carriage house.

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The next morning, a Thursday, I checked out of my hotel–leaving my larger suitcase in the care of the hotel proprietor–and spent a last couple of hours wandering the British Museum. I then retrieved my bag, returned to the Covent Garden Underground station and took the metro to Heathrow Airport. It was time to head back to India, but that is something for the next blog post.

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