by Bernard K. Means
On the afternoon of this International Day of Archaeology, I am sitting in the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, waiting for a 4:35 pm train back to Fredericksburg. I’ve spent two days in this city, which is rich both in archaeology and historical places—some directly associated with individuals integral to the founding of the United States of America. However, on this trip to Philadelphia, my primary goal was not to actually do any archaeology or 3-D documentation (although I did a little of the latter) of culturally or historically significant items. Rather, I was here to visit the National Constitution Center (NCC).
In Summer 2016, I spent a few days working in the archaeology laboratory run by Debbie Miller and Jed Levin that deals with artifacts recovered from Independence National Historical Park locations. These included artifacts recovered from excavations at the site of the NCC. NCC’s Elena Pochock had contacted me about 3-D scanning some artifacts from the NCC site. The NCC was developing a permanent exhibit about the archaeology and wanted to incorporate tactile elements. While the real objects would be safely protected behind glass, visitors could still have history at their fingertips with accurately scaled and printed replicas of key items that tell the story of Philadelphia in 1787, when the US Constitution was ratified.
Over the fall months of 2016 and the spring months of 2017, my team of undergraduate interns and one alumnae worked frantically in the Virtual Curation Laboratory to edit digital models, print 3-D replicas, and paint them to resemble the original items. I then shipped them up to Philadelphia for Elena and the rest of the NCC team to integrate into their new exhibit. Elena was kind enough to send pictures of the finished install and I could tell the exhibit was spectacularly done, but still did not have a strong feel for how people, including myself, would navigate through this space.
Elena met me yesterday at 11 am, shortly after I arrived from the train station, and took me up to the Philadelphia 1787 exhibit. She noted that this was now one of their most popular exhibits, and they’ve received numerous positive comments. I was really impressed with how the exhibit windows and color scheme for the real objects linked to the selected replicas on the exhibit walls.
Visitors definitely like to touch and interact with objects, occasionally a little too much. Replicas have been pulled off of walls by exuberant visitors. Interestingly enough, people do not steal the replicas but rather either leave them on the floor or take them down to the security desk, including this wooden boat replica and cupping glass replica.
The next step in the exhibit is to develop a teaching cart, which will house other replicas 3-D scanned from Philadelphia. I look forward to a return visit to see how that is implemented.
Having the ability to touch the past, even as a 3-D printed replica once removed from the original object, is a great way to engage people with the past, while keeping the real objects safe from minimal handling. And, 3-D printed replicas provide a tangible connection to the past for the visually impaired or blind for whom artifacts behind glass have little meaning. On Monday, October 23, I’ll be on a panel at the Library of Congress for Disability Awareness Month. I’ll be talking about 3-D printed artifacts, fossils, and historical items—but that’s for another blog—although you can read this Newsweek article in the meantime.