New Book Chapter – On Virtual Auras: The Cultural Heritage Object in the Age of 3D Digital Reproduction

Still from the Shipping Gallery video, showing the figurehead from HMS North Star. From Hindmarch (2015).
Still from the Science Museum, London’s, Shipping Gallery Lidar scan video, showing the figurehead from HMS North Star. From Hindmarch (2015, p. 145) with acknowledgement to Scanlab.

We’re really pleased to see the release of a new book, The Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites, Edited by Hannah Lewi, Wally Smith, Dirk vom Lehn, Steven Cooke (2019). Which has a book chapter from me and my colleagues in it! Based on the PhD research of Dr John Hindmarch, which was supervised by myself and Prof Stuart Robson, this chapter asks if digital heritage 3D objects have their own aura…

Hindmarch, J., Terras, M., and Robson, S. (2019). On Virtual Auras: The Cultural Heritage Object in the Age of 3D Digital ReproductionIn: H. Lewi; W Smith; S Cooke; D vom Lehn (eds) (2019). The Routledge international Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites. London: Routledge, pp. 243-256.

Making 3D models for public facing cultural heritage applications currently concentrates on creating digitised models that are as photo realistic as possible. The virtual model should have, if possible, the same informational content as its subject, in order to act as a ‘digital surrogate’. This is a reasonable approach, but due to the nature of the digitisation process and limitations of the technology, it is often very difficult, if not impossible.

However, museum objects themselves are not merely valued for their informational content; they serve purposes other than simply imparting information. In modern museums exhibits often appear as parts of a narrative, embedded within a wider context, and in addition, have physical properties that also retain information about their creation, ownership, use, and provenance. This ability for an object to tell a story is due to more than just the information it presents. Many cultural heritage objects have, to borrow an old term, aura: an affectual power to engender an emotional response in the viewer. Is it possible that a 3D digitised model can inherit some of this aura from the original object? Can a virtual object also have affectual power, and if so, fulfil the role of a museum object without necessarily being a ‘realistic’ representation?

In this chapter we will first examine the role of museums and museum exhibits, particularly as regards to their public-facing remits, and what part aura plays. We will then ask if digitised objects can also have aura, and how they might help to fulfil the museums’ roles. We will see in the case of the Science Museum’s Shipping Gallery scan, that a digitised resource can, potentially, exhibit affectual power, and that this ability depends as much on the presentation and context of the resource as the information contained within it.

Under the licensing for this book, we are allowed to host the author’s last version on our own websites, so you can download a PDF of the full chapter here. Tim Sherratt is also rounding up other author’s last versions here, for other contents of the book!

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