3D printed artifacts in various stages of being painted.

Bringing the Past into the Present Using the Technology of the Future

Walking into VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab is like entering the mind of a crazed historian from the future.

The whirring of several 3D printers working at once fills the tiny office space, which looks like a national museum stuffed into 200 square feet, with the busy sounds of creation. Massive bones of extinct creatures, delicate statues and figurines from India, and human skulls fill the walls and surfaces of the lab in a dizzying display of history that astonishes and overwhelms. A tiny bright orange mastodon rides a bicycle on a nearby shelf, lasers project and roam over the blade of a bayonet from World War I, and teeth the size of fists sit side-by-side 3D replicas of themselves, discernable from the original only by a trained eye.

The Virtual Curation Lab is a 3D digital data collection and virtual artifact curation laboratory that scans and reproduces archeological and historical artifacts.

“People located anywhere in the world could download the artifacts and 3D print them, or you can interact with the objects on the screen,” said Dr. Bernard Means, director of the Virtual Curation Lab.

The lab was originally funded in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Legacy Program to develop a digital data project that incorporated the use of a three-dimensional object scanner in recording American Indian historic artifacts for analysis and conservation. Since then, the lab has expanded and partnered with universities, museums and private citizens to create 3D replicas of artifacts from across the world.

“I probably have the most eclectic collection of things because most people who do 3D scanning are geographically confined or they’re working with their own collections,” Means said. “We used to actually go out and look for things to scan and we don’t do that too much anymore, we have people coming to us and we work with a much wider range of museums.”

According to Means, the lab is currently working on over 30 active projects including creating 3D models of slave objects throughout Virginia for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, scanning the bones of a Giant Ground Sloth for the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and constructing a 3D model of a mastodon from CT scans from the Western Science Center. This July the lab is also starting a new project creating models of museum artifacts for the blind and visually impaired at the Virginia Historical Society.

“3D scans extend the audience farther than whoever would normally get to see it. They’re filed away in boxes and researchers can go look at it but then the rest of us might not be able to,” said Camilla Harris, a student researcher at the Virtual Curation Lab.

Students at VCU gain access to the Virtual Curation Lab through the archeology classes that Means teaches, where they work with the numerous collections and materials the lab has catalogued to study different aspects of dead cultures and animals.

“You can learn so much about those people and the lives they lived. It’s really interesting to me the amount you can get from bones and other artifacts,” Harris said.

Their work, which ranges wildly from female figurines found in Costa Rica to the skeleton of a dog buried in Gloucester County, Virginia, is currently displayed in an exhibit at the Globe Education Office on Grace St.

The lab also provides students with the opportunity to participate in an archeological dig, called field school, where students spend a month uncovering history with their own hands. This year’s expedition is in search of Fort Germanna, a lost structure which was the westernmost outpost of colonial Virginia in the 1700s. VCU is partnering with the Germanna Foundation under the direction of Dr. Eric Larsen for the field school. Two VCU alumna and one current VCU student who attended the school in 2016 will help teach VCU students in 2017.

“They’ll learn how to do archeology by actually doing archeology,” said Means. “Hopefully this year we’ll find the fort. Last year we found a twenty-first century septic field.”

VCU students did find indirect evidence of the Fort from artifacts that date to the time the Fort was occupied by German settlers.

The virtual curation lab is a way for people to physically connect to the past. By replicating historical artifacts using 3D scanning and printing technology, the lab brings history into the present, using the technology of the future. And according to Means, the study of history is an important piece in understanding the present and preparing for the future.

“If you don’t know your history and heritage you’re sort of doomed to repeat it, but there are also people who look at the past and say there are lessons that we can learn that might help us today or in the future,” Means said. “You can’t really move forward until you remember the past.”

Read more about the Virtual Curation Lab at VCU News.

Written by Megan Schiffres