Tagged photogrammetry

Students sitting on the ground at a museum smile and discuss the 3D printed antiquity replicas they're discussing.

Animating Antiquity: Student-Generated Approaches to Recontextualizing Ancient Artworks using Digital Technologies


Animating Antiquity was a student-generated curatorial project undertaken at the University of Miami in the Spring of 2019. The project consisted of multifaceted approaches to recontextualizing the ancient artworks in the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami. Ancient objects were functional at their core, but their display in a museum setting makes it difficult to recreate and understand their original significance and context. Through the use of digital tools—3D modeling and printing, and extended reality technologies—this project aimed to reinsert these objects into their original settings, reanimate their tactility and functionality, and form new modes of interaction with artworks in the space of the museum and the virtual realm. Students engaged in hands-on, museum-based learning through the compilation of art historical research contextualizing the objects; the creation of 3D digital models and prints; and the design of interactive strategies in real world and virtual environments. The Animating Antiquity Project combined multiple innovative technologies, pedagogical strategies, and community outreach to provide students with transferable professional skills and expertise while expanding the boundaries of the museum and connecting people and objects in innovative ways. This paper discusses the pedagogical and technical strategies employed during the project, foregrounding the approaches generated by undergraduate and graduate students.


The Animating Antiquity Project was funded by a CREATE grant from the Mellon Foundation, whose aim is to foster the connection between students and cultural resources on the University of Miami campus (University of Miami Libraries and Lowe Art Museum 2019). The project was implemented in an interdisciplinary course, Greek and Roman Art (ARH 333P/CLA226P), co-taught by Professors Karen Mathews (Art and Art History) and Han Tran (Classics) in the Spring Semester of 2019. Twenty-one undergraduate students in the course undertook a curatorial project to recontextualize eight ancient objects in the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, using various digital technologies to recreate and understand their original function and context (Lowe Art Museum 2019). Students devised multifaceted ways of reanimating antiques for visitors to the Lowe; research dossiers provided information about the function, context, and historical background of the objects, 3D digital models allowed viewers to manipulate the artwork and experience it in the round, 3D prints incorporated the elements of tactility and interactivity, while augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences inserted the ancient artworks into new, virtual contexts. The innovation of this project resides in the student use of digital technologies to facilitate the staging of interactions between viewers and objects, creating a complex interplay between original, digital model, and printed replica in various spaces and modes—the museum gallery, a new space viewed through a smartphone, or an immersive virtual reconstruction.

The educational practices embedded for this project were guided by multiple components including: 1) program and course student-learning outcomes within the art history and classics BA programs 2) previous research undertaken by the authors in their respective fields of art history and digital education 3) emerging research and literature involving digitization within education 4) theoretical frameworks of historical preservation 5) and previous implementation of a similar project led by the authors (see footnote 1). The collaborative, pluralistic, and hands-on approach to the study of ancient art provided the most profound outcomes for students involved in the Animating Antiquity Project, as undergraduate and graduate students engaged in traditional and emerging methodologies associated with museum work. The project therefore informed the course workflow, including the weaving of content-specific lectures and classroom discussions, technical workshops with project partners, visits to the museum, student conferences, and several project assignments. The incremental design of coursework allowed students to create and present what they learned in different ways while facilitating instructor feedback and assessment. Through the creation of an art historical dossier, undergraduate student teams gained knowledge in interpretative analysis and research of primary and secondary sources, demonstrated their understanding of art historical terminology, and effectively synthesized their findings through documentation, in-class discussions, a project website, and a final presentation. The digitization and fabrication of antiquities gave students the rare opportunity to interact closely with precious historical artifacts often overlooked within the museum. Students engaged in a variety of tasks including photographing objects and hands-on technical workshops to produce materials for museum patrons, including digital and tangible facsimiles of each artifact. The creation of interactive strategies for museum visitors (activities that encourage interaction with the 3D print of the digital model and create a dialogue between the 3D print and the real object) allowed students to become instrumental in providing solutions to remove visual or tactile restrictions in a visitor’s engagement with objects. The final element of the project involved cross-program partnerships, where graduate students leveraged the dossier, 3D digital models, and prints to design augmented and virtual reality applications and employ the technical knowledge from their coursework within a practice-based museum context.

Many of these digital technologies and pedagogical approaches have been deployed in museum and higher education institutions over the past few years (Balletti, Ballarin, and Guerra 2017; Flynn 2018; Grayburn et al. 2019; Jeffs et al. 2017; Saunders 2017; Schofield et al. 2018; Younan and Treadaway 2015). Similar pedagogical approaches that align with this project address: the handling of objects, transformations in interpretation, the recontextualization of heritage, and approaches to digitizing, editing, and fabricating 3D digital heritage. At the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, an initial partnership between the schools of Industrial Design and Classical Studies used 3D scans and prints of antiquities to lessen students’ fear of handling objects by having them recreate the original function of the object (Guy, Burton, and Challies 2018; Victoria University of Wellington 2017). At the University of South Florida, undergraduate students participated in a crowdsourcing project to digitize heritage artifacts at the Archaeological Museum of Syracuse and create digital storytelling guides (Bonacini, Tanasi, and Trapani 2018). For almost a decade, Duke University’s Wired! Lab for Digital Art History & Visual Culture has transformed its program offerings to respond to digital technologies within the fields of art and architectural history, involving students in the digital reconstruction of heritage in a variety of contexts (Lanzoni, Olson, and Szabo 2015; Wired! Lab 2019). Recent research (Di Franco et al. 2015; Pollalis et al. 2018) has also addressed hands-on engagement with digital and 3D printed objects from the perspective of undergraduate students. As such, digital technologies within art history and classics curricula have spurred the transformation of higher education practices.

Finally, this project was guided by conceptual frameworks that address the complex relationship between humans and objects. Material culture studies have highlighted the central role of objects in human thought and action (Hicks and Beaudry 2010; Tilley et al. 2006). Specifically, thing theory argues for the active role of objects in defining human actions, giving something inanimate a rich biography and social life (Appadurai 1986; Brown 2001; Kopytoff 1986). Within the project, the artifacts were central actors in the design of the course assessments, the project components, and the student interaction with the antiquities. As student teams advanced throughout the project, the artifacts adopted new meanings through content generated by the students. Students were encouraged to make historical inferences about these objects to develop an original narrative about their history. As a result, the relationship between students and the objects was multifaceted and symbiotic, as objects interact with people and other objects to produce unexpected effects, strengthening or redefining pre-existing social or cultural relationships, or forging completely new connections (Mathews 2015). Furthermore, a significant outcome of this project was the incorporation of graduate students, who were encouraged to present their perspective on the role of the museum, its objects, and visitors. The interaction between people and objects therefore locates artworks in a constant state of redefinition as they engage with human actors in different spatial and temporal contexts (Figure 1).

Diagram connecting the center project component, art historical research and 3d modeling, with three resulting project components, 3D printing, augmented reality application and virtual reality installation.
Figure 1. Visual diagram of the Animating Antiquity Project components.

This paper will outline the implementation and outcomes of the Animating Antiquity Project, addressing the key components of the project—the creation of an art historical research dossier, 3D digital models of ancient artworks, prints of 3D models, interactive strategies for the printed models, and a website presenting student research—in chronological order. A discussion of the creation of an art historical research dossier and digital 3D models for eight artworks in the Lowe Art Museum will be followed by a description of the varied applications of these core materials for interactive strategies that forged creative connections between ancient objects and modern viewers. This paper therefore seeks to demonstrate the rich and multifaceted relationships between people and objects that were forged through the use of digital technologies in the museum and classroom and share the pedagogical methodologies and outcomes associated with this project with the wider academic community.[1]

Art Historical Dossier and 3D Digital Models

Art historical dossier

The research conducted for the art historical dossier served as the first reanimation of ancient artworks in the Lowe, as the students began to understand the role that objects like glass vessels, ceramic wares, and portrait sculpture played in the ancient world. In their present configuration, the antiquities at the Lowe Art Museum reside in glass display cases with minimal background information and limited opportunities for visitor interaction. In order to foster a deeper understanding of these antiquities, students conducted art historical research on the eight objects chosen for 3D modeling and compiled that research in digital dossiers. The research focused particularly on the function and context of the artworks, as all ancient art served a purpose, be it political, religious, economic, or social. The research materials consulted by the students were eclectic in nature, given the lack of documentation on these specific objects. Students consulted dossiers on file at the Lowe Art Museum, art historical materials and practical guides from other museums and cultural organizations, scholarly books and articles, and web-based resources to understand and contextualize these ancient objects. The analysis of the antiquities began with a basic physical description, extracting visual information from the object itself. Then the students delved deeper into the history of ancient Greece and Rome to understand how these objects functioned, where they would have been placed and used, and how they would have been perceived by ancient audiences.

The subdividing of the written elements into thematic units facilitated the writing process. Students could concentrate on one topic at a time—function, iconography, context—and also review peer feedback that they could revisit and revise (Carless and Boud 2018). In the final stages of the dossier’s creation, the students worked on the text as a whole, making it flow as a seamless narrative, omitting redundancies and focusing the text on a particular theme related to the object itself. The preparation of the art historical dossier served a number of purposes: familiarizing the students with objects and their meaning in original contexts; creating the foundation for student-generated interactive strategies; and providing background information on the objects for visitors to the Lowe Art Museum. This original research conducted by the students provided a key outcome of the project, as most of these objects have not been studied in a systematic manner. The Canosan vase, for example, is a fairly common object, but this type of pottery has not been addressed extensively in the scholarly literature (Figure 2). In the absence of basic data, students researched comparable objects to make scholarly inferences about the artworks in the Lowe, collecting comparative materials with which to support their conclusions. The completed art historical dossier consisted of the following elements: a document presenting a visual description of the object and discussing its form, function, and original context; a photograph of the object; the 3D digital model; and images of comparable artworks. This research dossier was shared on Google Drive so that all the students devising interactive strategies would have access to this important contextual information.

Portrait and side profile of Greek Canosan funerary vessel, decorated with two female figures, next to portrait and side profile of a comparative work.
Figure 2. Canosan funerary vessel, Lowe Art Museum, 98.0009, and a comparative work.

In the final phase of the project, the dossier was uploaded onto a website that serves as the public portal to the research project [https://www.animatingantiquity.net]. Students were encouraged to review the Spring 2018 digital dossier (see footnote 1) as an ‘exemplar’ to illustrate assessment expectations (Carless and Boud 2018). Using WordPress, students created posts for each of the eight objects featured in the class project (Figure 3). Once uploaded to Sketchfab (a web platform for hosting and viewing immersive and interactive 3D files), the digital model was embedded within the post so that visitors could review still photographs and interactive 3D models while reading the text. The content of the website is accessible in the immediate context of the museum itself through a tablet mounted on a pedestal next to the artworks on display, so visitors can gain knowledge about the object while viewing it firsthand and performing the interactive strategies described on the website.

Project homepage including the project overview next to the calyx krater page depicting a gallery, interactive 3D model, and text.
Figure 3. Animating Antiquity website homepage and calyx krater page.

3D digital models of ancient artworks

In addition to the dossier, the creation of the 3D digital models profoundly influenced new interpretations and re-presentations of the objects (Kalay 2008, 8). Harrison (2015) proposes that heritage is inseparable from the interconnected relationships between social, political, and environmental issues. The 3D digitization process and the digital and fabricated objects invited conversations with students about conservation, management, and ethical implications of heritage artworks. As the fragility and antiquity of the artworks limited engagement with them, students were tasked with the design of digital and physical reproductions for the public to touch. The process of photographing the objects introduced students to the careful protocols established by museum staff for handling antiquities in order to ensure their proper conservation. Indeed, students contributed to the conservation of these artworks by creating 3D digital versions of the originals and compiling a set of photographs that documented the current state of the object. The ethical implications connected to fabricating artifacts were also discussed with students, encouraging them to consider the implications of creating digital copies of original artworks and the ways in which they could alter the meaning of the ancient artworks (Colley 2015).

Students created the 3D digital models in a multi-step, group-based, collaborative process, in which tasks related to the various components rotated through each student group. Everyone contributed to all the interrelated parts and the students themselves were responsible for the completion of the digital model. Objects were selected based on their applicability for photogrammetry, and students created the 3D models of these artworks in three 75-minute hands-on workshops. First, the photogrammetry session at the Lowe Art Museum allowed students to capture multiple photographic viewpoints of the objects outside the display case, transforming how they usually interact with artworks. Eight students (two from each group) served as “digital preservation experts,” engaging with museum staff during the session as collaborators in the photography process. Museum staff installed, handled, and rotated the pieces while students determined the most effective ways to capture each object (Figure 4).

Two images depicting students taking photos of artefacts within the museum, while museum staff observe.
Figure 4. Students conducting photography using DSLR cameras and lighting soft boxes.

Students were provided some initial guidance and allocated an hour to capture the artworks. They checked the assembled equipment for any discrepancies, decided which object they would photograph, communicated with the museum staff to place objects, prepared and tested the camera settings, and completed four 360° rotations to ensure adequate overlap of focused photos at multiple camera angles to capture complex sculptural contours.[2] They then uploaded the files to a shared Google Drive folder.

Post session, two different students per group took the lead in editing raw photos, exporting them for photogrammetric processing using Autodesk ReCap Pro Photo. Once processed and downloaded, the files were reduced in size and exported for students to edit with Autodesk Meshmixer. Two modeling sessions completed the process of creating the 3D digital models. In the first session, two students per group edited mesh files, learning how to repair holes in the mesh, add surface texture to the model, and create a clean base. Students were encouraged to interact with the artworks in the digital realm, dismantling the object, creating new shapes, sculpting and adding textures to the reconstructed artwork. In this part of the process, emphasis was not placed on absolute accuracy, but rather on an authentic presentation of the digital object. With help from the authors and student assistants, timely, personalized feedback (Carless and Boud 2018) was shared with each student to prepare for the second modeling session in which further editing tasks were performed to prepare the files for uploading to Sketchfab and for 3D printing.[3] Once the 3D models were completed, the authors uploaded the .OBJ files onto Sketchfab. Students then created annotations for the digital models, noting aspects of the object’s iconography, material, and technique in short texts that can be read while manipulating the model (Figure 5). The publishing of the annotated models on a well-known website platform constituted another reanimation of these antiquities, as the digital model and its descriptive annotations bridged the distance between visitors, students, and the wider public audience.

3D digital models of the bearded roman and calyx krater objects captured with numbered annotations.
Figure 5. 3D digital models with annotations on Sketchfab.

Student-Generated Applications of Art Historical Research and 3D Digital Models

Reconstructing artworks through 3D printing

The 3D prints actualized the premise of the Animating Antiquity Project, bringing alive the culture of ancient Greece and Rome through a recontextualization of ancient artworks while creating new, contemporary connections between people and objects. The digital models themselves served an important didactic function, providing museum visitors with a more comprehensive understanding of an artwork through the manipulation of the digital model (Jeffs et al. 2017), but they also served as the basis for creating prints of the models that could be handled in the museum gallery. Complementing photographs and the digital model, the 3D print provided a third visual manifestation and reanimation of the object, replicating the art object in an accurate manner through its size and material. The printed replicas were painted to recreate the decoration on the artworks and provided viewers with tactile access to the objects. In museum settings, 3D prints of artworks allow visitors to engage with art in a more intimate way, complementing the original works in the display case and providing opportunities for blind and visually impaired visitors to experience art objects (Di Franco et al. 2015; Henderson 2018; Nancarrow 2017; Sportun 2014; Williams 2017; Wilson et al. 2018).

Two images depicting multiple students and faculty sitting in the museum, talking and handling 3D prints of antiquities.
Figure 6. Students handling draft 3D prints at the Lowe Art Museum.

The 3D printing of digital models was essential for the interactive activities described below. The printing component was ambitious and interdisciplinary in scope, with a number of individuals, spaces, and institutions contributing to its successful completion. The digital models were prepared for 3D printing by students in Meshmixer with additional refinements made by the authors. Digital versions of vessels, for example, required thickened surfaces for structural integrity or were hollowed out so that they could be printed as vessels. After the first modeling session, ‘draft’ 3D models were printed at a reduced scale in polylactic acid (PLA) filament for students to handle, evaluate, and employ in devising interactive strategies (Figure 6). The remaining modeling edits and student-generated strategies informed the number, scale, and structure of the 3D prints.

The printing workflow entailed dividing the objects between makerspaces in the College of Engineering, the Department of Art and Art History, and an Ultimaker 3 managed by Academic Technologies.[4] As the Engineering printers could also accommodate larger-scale objects, most models were printed to emulate the scale of the original artwork.[5] Prints were made using various PLA filament types, with a marble-like filament emulating the crystalline structure of stone sculpture, while wood-fiber and terracotta-colored plastic reproduced the original materials of other ancient objects. Printing times could vary from three to thirty-six hours per object, so the completion of these prints was scheduled over a month time frame, anticipating printing errors and print queue issues while accommodating other users on campus. Once the prints were ready, students prepared models for painting. Some models remained unpainted, as the PLA imitated the original material of the artwork, but others had their original polychromy “restored” or were painted to more closely emulate the original decoration (Figure 7). Students in this phase of the project could interact freely with the models in ways that would be impossible with the original artwork, emulating the original use of the objects in their handling and manipulation.

Landscape view of a table display presenting multiple 3D printed versions of antiquities within the Lowe Art Museum.
Figure 7. Display of completed prints in the Lowe Art Museum.

Undergraduate student strategy: Restoration of the Canosan funerary vessel

The 3D prints provided the opportunity for an imaginative reconstruction of the object. Instead of copying the current state of an artwork, prints can recreate the original, often vibrant, decoration of ancient objects. The Canosan vessel print, for example, displays the bright primary colors that would have characterized this funerary offering in its original state (Figure 8). The comparison between the modern copy and the artwork itself presents significant historical information about material culture in the ancient world.

Two images depicting the process of students and faculty painting the Canosan vase using primary colors. One final image presents the finished object painted in blue, red and yellow.
Figure 8. “Restoring” the color of the Canosan funerary vessel print.

Undergraduate student strategy: Recreating Theseus and the labyrinth

Student-generated strategies strove to combine three versions of the same object—original, digital model, and 3D print—in order to animate the artwork for museum visitors. These interactions could highlight the form and iconography of the object or shed light on its function and original context. The interactive strategy devised for the double-headed sculpture of Theseus and Ariadne focused on the duality and complementarity of the two figures portrayed (Figure 9).

Three images depicting a two headed Theseus and Ariadne sculpture, including two portrait views and a side profile view.
Figure 9. Theseus and Ariadne sculpture, Lowe Art Museum, 2005.7.2.

For the 3D print, the students separated the heads to emphasize the distinct characteristics of each figure but also the complementary nature of the pair. Added to the Theseus print was a maze representing the labyrinth that he had to negotiate with the help of Ariadne to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread so that he could trace his way out of the maze. In the gallery activity, a stylus attached to a string on the Ariadne side traces the path of Theseus through the maze, demonstrating the cooperation between the couple that helped them destroy their monstrous adversary (Figure 10). Color-coded pins inserted into the print provided information about the myth in stages so that viewers can follow the path of the protagonist and discover the intertwined nature of these two mythological figures.

Three side-profile images depicting the 3D printed two headed Theseus and Ariadne sculpture, cut in half with a maze visible.
Figure 10. Theseus and Ariadne 3D prints with maze.

Undergraduate student strategy: Simulating the calyx krater’s function at the symposion

A third interactive strategy recontextualizes the calyx krater and the role it played in the ancient Greek symposion, a gathering of Greek men who engaged in conversation, listened to music, and enjoyed entertainment while drinking wine mixed with water. The mixing of the two liquids was essential for ensuring the longevity of the symposion and displayed the civilization of the Greeks, as only “barbarians” drank unmixed wine. The krater was the vessel used to combine water and wine and was thus an indispensable component of the symposion itself. The imagery on this krater alludes to its function, representing the god of wine, Dionysus, and his followers in a procession (Figure 11).

Three images depicting the Calyx krater displayed at three rotated angles
Figure 11. Calyx krater, Lowe Art Museum, 2011.5.

The interactive activity recreated the symposion environment by distributing a number of smaller drinking vessels to the “participants” of the gathering while demonstrating the dilution of the wine central to this ritualized activity. The interactive strategy highlighted the function of the krater while elucidating the iconography of the vessel (Figure 12).

Three images depicting a full-scale 3D printed calyx krater decorated, multiple small-scale 3D printed calyx kraters in red and black, and students demonstrating the pouring of water in the krater.
Figure 12. Student-generated 3D prints of the calyx krater and reconstruction of wine mixing.

Interdisciplinary work by MFA students

Though the content of the Animating Antiquity Project was devised in the context of an undergraduate course, MFA students from two different schools designed and implemented their own creative engagements with 3D models and prints using the art historical dossiers and digital models created by the undergraduates. One project emerged through a graduate student’s exploration of makerspaces across the UM campus and the potential of 3D printing as a creative sculptural medium. Two additional projects developed through partnerships with students in the MFA program of Interactive Media at the School of Communication. Enrolled in courses dedicated to the study and implementation of AR and VR technologies, these graduate students used the content created by undergraduate students to design interactive approaches with the Lowe antiquities. The undergraduates, then, served as the experts in terms of knowledge of the art objects themselves and in terms of the creation of raw digital data. Through shared Google Drive folders, graduate students could access all the work folders and employ the raw materials compiled by the undergraduates in innovative technological formats.

MFA student project: Experimentation with 3D modeling and printing (Monica Travis)

The greatest experimentation with printing materials took place with the reproduction of a Hellenistic theater mask by Monica Travis, MFA student in sculpture in the Department of Art and Art History. The theater mask is a bronze object, and Monica wished to print it in metal to emulate the original material. The Johnson & Johnson Lab in the College of Engineering possesses a metal 3D printer that produces parts with titanium powder, and these advanced facilities provided the opportunity to print the bronze theater mask in a metallic medium, that of titanium. This printer is often used for the prototyping of parts, so the printing of an art object constituted an innovative application of its capabilities. Monica undertook a meticulous preparation of the file for printing, editing photographs in Adobe Photoshop and processing them in Agisoft Metashape, an advanced photogrammetry tool. The modeling application Rhinoceros was used to clean up the model and prepare it for printing. A test print was performed using a Lulzbot Taz 6 in the Department of Art and Art History before queuing it on the titanium printer (Figure 13). This project provided an opportunity for Monica to innovate in both the methods and materials used; she experimented with photogrammetry, photographic editing, and modeling tools to produce a print using materials not often employed in 3D printed artworks.

Three images depicting multiple versions of the Theatre mask in yellow PLA, titanium and wood PLA.
Figure 13. Theatre mask (left to right) in PLA filament; Titanium print; all 3D prints in PLA, titanium, and wood-PLA filament.

MFA student project: Antiquities in real world contexts using augmented reality (Jinqi Li, MacKenzie Miller, Laura Miller, Aishwarya Navale)

In the context of a course offered in the School of Communication at the University of Miami, graduate students from the MFA Interactive Media program created two AR applications using the student-generated digital models of the Lowe antiquities.[6] The concept behind both apps was to enhance visitor interaction with the objects using a smart device (Marques and Costello 2018). The first AR application allows museum-goers to observe the antiquities up close in 3D. Users employ a brochure that serves as the platform for the experience, allowing them to use the app anywhere. The brochure possesses four recognizable image targets that trigger the AR program when a device’s camera is directed at them (Figure 14). When the image target is detected, users view the rotating digital model on their mobile screen, supplemented with audio narration addressing significant information about the artwork. To create the first application, the students used Vuforia Augmented Reality SDK in Unity 3D to enable the image target detection of the artifacts. Dr. Mathews recorded the audio that was used in the application, and a rotation effect was added so that the viewer could see the artifact from all angles. Lastly, the application was exported to a mobile phone using Xcode.

A landscape brochure detailing four models used for image targets in the augmented reality experience
Figure 14. Brochure for AR experience.

The second application enables museum visitors to take the artworks home with them virtually, observe the objects in new contexts, and share their experiences on social media platforms. Users of this application scan a room and then project the 3D model of the object onto that space. The object can be resized and moved around the room to the ideal virtual setting, and the user can then photograph it and share it. The students used ARKit SDK in Unity 3D to make an application where a virtual object can be placed in the real world. A menu allows the user to choose the object they would like to place in a new real-world context (Figure 15). Both of these AR applications used digital models and art historical research to connect people and objects through interactive experiences. The users of these AR applications learn more about the objects in a personalized manner, employing a smart device as a tool to display and manipulate the 3D models, place the antiquities in novel contexts, and share their interactions with others.

Three panes representing the user perspective of using the augmented reality application including instructions, digital model placed on ground and annotations.
Figure 15. AR application with photo “souvenir” capabilities.

MFA student project: Feeling Antiquity in virtual reality (Lorena Lopez)

This virtual reality (VR) experience attempts to show the myriad ways in which immersive environments can enhance a visitor’s understanding of artworks in a museum setting by emphasizing the power of touch. Both museum and VR experiences generally lack a tactile component, that is, the ability to touch objects in real and virtual spaces (Candlin 2010; Candlin 2017). In the Feeling Antiquity experience, visitors can interact with a 3D print in a virtual realm. The object selected for the VR experience was the calyx krater, a vessel that was used to mix wine and water in the context of the symposion (Figures 11 and 12). As part of a summative project to demonstrate her knowledge and construction of virtual worlds, Lorena Lopez used the art historical dossier created by undergraduates to study the physical setting of the symposion, a space called an andron that was used exclusively by males. Using the Unity Game engine and its asset store, she constructed the 3D scene where men would gather for the symposion and hold the krater (Totten 2014). Through an HTC Vive Pro VR headset, the viewer was immersed into the ancient Greek space of the andron. Once there, the user of the headset could interact with a full-scale print of the calyx krater, touching and picking up the printed model of the vessel using the handheld controllers (Figure 16). The virtual visitor was not only transported to the ancient past, but they could reach out and actually touch an object within the space of the andron. In a museum setting, the sense of touch is generally subordinated to the visual, as visitors are discouraged and prohibited from touching artworks (Di Franco et al. 2015). VR can break down these barriers and allow museumgoers to engage art with more than just vision, handling ancient artworks in the same way that they would have been used in the past. There are great, but still untapped, possibilities in the realm of haptic gloves and suits, though handheld controllers were used in this experience in the interest of time (Needleman 2018; Hall 2016). These VR technologies can animate places and objects that are distant geographically or no longer extant, integrating touch into an interactive and immersive environment that complements and enhances a museum experience.

Graduate student wearing a virtual reality headset in front of a projector displaying a room, and standing next to a table displaying a black 3D printed version of the calyx krater.
Figure 16. VR experience with the calyx krater.

Conclusion: Outcomes and Reflections

In the context of the spring semester course, students successfully completed all the stated objectives: the creation of an art historical dossier, a digital model, a 3D print, strategies for visitor interaction with the 3D print, and a website. What was actually gained from this experience, however, was far richer. The interdisciplinarity and interactivity of the work conducted established meaningful connections between the students and the objects they studied. Students were exposed to numerous ways in which research and digital content could reanimate ancient objects. They also gained invaluable, hands-on practice with various digital technologies and processes, helping them determine where their personal interests and talents lay, be it in painting, 3D modeling, printing, or photography. The implementation of this project did pose some challenges, as the production schedule for the multiple components had limited flexibility, and a less-condensed time frame would have allowed for more exploration and mastery of research and technical skills. The display of 3D prints and implementation of XR technologies also raise ethical and logistical issues concerning the use of digital technologies in traditional museum spaces (Colley 2015, 17). Where do you stage such interactive experiences, and who provides oversight and monitoring? AR applications can be integrated easily into museum galleries through the use of smart devices, but VR often requires expensive equipment, space for movement, and timed sessions (Meier 2017). Furthermore, while the 3D/XR digital assets created in this project aimed to align with existing imaging and digital preservation practices (Alliez et al. 2017; Bedford 2017), limited control of metadata is a topic being addressed by open communities and experts (Moore et al. 2019; Rossi, Blundell, and Wiedemeier 2019). Once these practical challenges are addressed, however, myriad possibilities exist for the use of digital products and technologies in museum and undergraduate education, as 3D prints and their interactive applications can play a central role in the pedagogical mission of museums, encouraging visitors to devise their own strategies for connecting to people and objects from the ancient past.


[1] Henderson and Mathews employed photogrammetry techniques in a Spring 2018 course at the University of Miami addressing Spanish colonial art objects in the Lowe Art Museum; see their website. Work on this course facilitated the creation of the lesson plans, digital technologies, and partnerships that informed the Animating Antiquity Project.

[2] The equipment assembled to photograph the models included four DSLR Canon Rebel cameras, four tripods, three portable photo studio kits, four rotating platforms, one photography tent, and one larger lighting soft box.

[3] The file of the theater mask required extensive editing, and a graduate assistant, Monica Travis, became a co-creator of the digital version, using her expertise in Rhino to separate the shells and extra data to create a 3D printable file.

[4] The authors organized the print queues and Monica Travis managed most of the printing.

[5] The College of Engineering has several Makerbot printers, with two in particular (Makerbot Replicator Z18) that boast an 18” Z (vertical build space) ideal for larger print projects. These printers are available to all students and the college provides filament for the printing projects.

[6] The course was CIM 624—Augmented Reality, taught by Dr. Ching-Hua Chuan. Monica Travis was instrumental in forging this collaboration.


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The authors would like to acknowledge the generous support of the CREATE grant from the Mellon Foundation for the implementation of this project. They would like to thank the Lowe Art Museum, the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, School of Communication, the College of Engineering, the University of Miami Libraries, and the Academic Technologies unit. In addition to these institutional partners, the authors would like to recognize a number of individuals who contributed to the success of this project: Diana Arboleda, Ching-Hua Chuan, Christina Larson, Paige Morgan, Kojo Opuni, Michaela Senior, and Han Tran. Finally, this project would not have come to fruition without the creativity and hard work of the University of Miami students, undergraduate and graduate, who participated in ARH 333P/CLA 226P, CIM 616, and CIM 624 in the Spring Semester of 2019. The photos of antiquities used in this paper were captured by the undergraduate students; photos of 3D printed reconstructions were taken by T.J. Lievonen.

About the Authors

Karen Mathews is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami. She specializes in ancient, medieval, and Islamic art and has taught a number of courses that integrate photogrammetry and 3D modeling into the art history curriculum. She is currently working on several class-based projects that explore the presentation of art historical content in AR and immersive VR platforms.

Gemma Henderson is a Senior Instructional Designer on the Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement Team at the University of Miami. Gemma partners and consults with faculty, academic units, and other university stakeholders on curriculum development and digital pedagogies. On behalf of the Academic Technologies unit, she primarily engages in institution-wide educational outreach to support innovation in undergraduate and graduate courses, including initiatives such as faculty learning communities, educational scholarship, and the university’s annual teaching and learning conference.

This point cloud of the Church of the Little Flower consists of an aerial view of the sanctuary and the adjacent meeting hall.

3D Modeling in the Urban Classroom: Using Photogrammetry for the Study of Historic Architecture in Coral Gables, Florida


This article describes the methodologies and outcomes of a digital imaging project implemented at the University of Miami that analyzes and documents the historical architecture of Coral Gables, Florida. The project consists of the integration of traditional and innovative approaches to art-historical research in an activated learning environment where students determined the project’s content. Students in small groups gathered visual and documentary materials to create comprehensive dossiers for eight historical buildings in Coral Gables, structures that were built in a distinctive Mediterranean style at the time of the city’s foundation in the 1920s. Complementing the art-historical data collected are 3D models created using photogrammetry that can be viewed and manipulated on an interactive website in conjunction with the comprehensive materials collected about each structure. This project emphasizes collaboration and interdisciplinarity in the novel application of computational methods to address questions and issues within the realm of visual culture. It highlights the importance of students as active participants in the conceptualization and implementation of the project’s goals. It has also been highly successful in creating bridges between the university and the community around it, promoting awareness of cultural heritage sites and their preservation through the use of a set of advanced and innovative art-historical tools.

Project Description

This 3D modeling project of historic architecture in Coral Gables, Florida began as a module in a lower-level course on Spanish art taught at the University of Miami. The course material addressed the impact of Spanish architectural styles on the artistic production of Spain’s colonial possessions. The Spanish heritage of “La Florida,” a possession of Spain from 1513–1763 and again in 1783–1819, is evident in numerous colonial and colonial style structures, and the city of Coral Gables, where the university is located, presents particularly good examples of this type of architecture. Coral Gables was founded by George Merrick in 1925 with the vision of recreating “Castles in Spain” in its architectural style.[1] The earliest structures in the city consist of an eclectic mix of Spanish, Spanish colonial, and Italian cultural references through which Merrick and his architects created a distinctive Mediterranean ambience in the city. Coral Gables, then, presents the ideal visual laboratory to study the influence of historical European architecture on early twentieth-century urban planning in the United States.

What began as a classroom experiment in the use of new imaging technologies to visualize architectural structures has developed over the past two years into a full-fledged research project. This study of historic Coral Gables architecture now consists of eight monuments: three structures that are addressed in detail below (The Congregational Church of Christ, the Church of the Little Flower, and the Biltmore Hotel) as well as the Coco Plum Woman’s Club, the Colonnade Hotel, the Fink Studio, the Douglas Entrance, and the Coral Gables Preparatory Academy. Their documentation is recorded on an interactive website that includes textual and visual resources, historical and contemporary photographs and visualizations of the structures employing new technologies [http://historiccoralgables.ccs.miami.edu]. The website aims to be a compendium of knowledge about these buildings, searchable from a variety of perspectives that can provide information for a broad spectrum of users and viewers—the general public, tourists, city officials and administrators, academics, students, and historic preservation professionals. The project has been defined from the outset as an ongoing one given its broad scope, and additional data will be incorporated as part of successful grant applications. The article’s authors are the project team. Dr. Mathews was responsible for generating the website’s content, historical documentation, and standard digital photography. Mr. Mader and Dr. Sarafraz conducted the drone photography and digital photography and processed the data for the creation of the point clouds. Students were responsible for digital photography and art-historical research as well as the creation of the audio tour for the eight historical monuments. An initial version of the website provides general information on George Merrick’s vision for Coral Gables and the artistic and intellectual influences that inspired the city’s unique style. It currently focuses on one monument, the Congregational Church of Christ, as an example of the type of content to be incorporated into the interactive site. The authors will continue working on the project and will collaborate with groups or individual students on its research and implementation during the coming years. We envision that in future art history classes, students will gain expertise in creating 3D models, employing photogrammetry to formulate models of small-scale artworks within the structures themselves. The same approach to modeling space can be applied to modeling objects, and the students will collect data and refine 3D models on a micro scale using modeling software available at the university.

The digital imaging project for the early Mediterranean style structures in Coral Gables consists of three interconnected parts: art-historical research dossiers, 3-D models, and an interactive website. In the context of the Spanish art course, students conducted photographic surveys and art-historical research for three 1920s buildings in the city: The Church of the Little Flower, the Congregational Church of Christ, and the Biltmore Hotel (Figures 1–3).

This photograph shows the main entrance of the Church of the Little Flower, a basilica-plan church with a tall façade ornamented by an elaborate, Baroque-style portal.
Figure 1. Church of the Little Flower, Coral Gables, Florida, 1926
This exterior view of the Congregational Church of Christ highlights the intricately sculpted doorway and the tall bell tower with Baroque-style decoration.
Figure 2. The Congregational Church of Christ, Coral Gables, Florida, 1923
The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is a massive complex with a large central building and two connected wings. The central structure is surmounted by a tower based on the bell tower from the Cathedral of Seville.
Figure 3. The Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, Florida, 1926

The photographs serve as documentation of the structures’ state of preservation as of 2016, almost one hundred years after the buildings were constructed. Combined with the thousands of photographs taken to construct 3D models using photogrammetry (a technique that will be described in detail below), the photographic campaign resulted in the creation of a comprehensive digital archive for each structure. Students consulted the extensive resources available on early Coral Gables history in the Special Collections Department of the University of Miami’s Richter Library in order to create detailed art-historical dossiers that chronicled each structure’s history and analyzed the visual elements that connected the buildings to Mediterranean structures across Europe. The contemporary photos can be juxtaposed with historical ones, documenting the evolution of these structures for almost a century (Figures 4 and 5).

This image depicts the Congregation Church in Coral Gables soon after the completion of construction in 1925.
Figure 4. The Congregational Church of Christ in 1925 (image courtesy of City of Coral Gables, Department of Historical Resources and Cultural Arts)
By the 1970s, the Congregational Church was surrounded by a number of additional structures and lush, mature plantings.
Figure 5. The Congregational Church of Christ in 1970 (image courtesy of City of Coral Gables, Department of Historical Resources and Cultural Arts)

The overarching goal of this project is the combination of traditional art-historical methodologies with innovative digital imaging technologies to bring these buildings to life.

The images and documents gathered by students will be presented in a web-based interactive map of the city of Coral Gables. From the map, users/viewers can select a particular structure and navigate to a page that presents comprehensive information about that specific building. The website will display both modern and historical photographs of the monument, and provide access to documentation related to the building’s construction, preservation, and history. These documents include newspaper articles, advertisement campaigns, designation reports, plans, elevations, and architectural drawings. It will also incorporate in-depth art-historical information about the structure and its relationship to historical architecture of the Mediterranean region to trace the cultural origins of the references that were so inspirational for Merrick and his architects. Complementing the digital photographs will be 3D animated models created through the use of photogrammetry techniques and modeling software. Visitors to the website can select a specific monument and gain access to a wealth of information on that building, including visual and textual materials from the 1920s to the present day. The data presented on the site is comprehensive, but can be experienced from various perspectives depending upon the interest of the viewer.

Funding has been provided by the Coral Gables Community Foundation and a City of Coral Gables Cultural Development Grant to document five additional structures, bringing the total to eight public buildings created in the first decade of the city’s existence.[2] The website will be actively curated to incorporate crowdsourced photographs and audio files that document personal experiences related to each historic structure.[3] The participatory aspect of the site helps highlight the living nature of these buildings and the role that they play in the Coral Gables community today. Crowdsourced and publicly available photographs also have the potential to serve as an extraordinary research tool; if sufficient images can be gathered from a particular time period, it is then possible to create a 3D model to document the appearance of the building in the past as a comparison to its current state of preservation.[4]

To complement the data provided on the website, students from the University of Miami’s Computer Science course “Introduction to Software Engineering” have created an Android application for a virtual tour of these Coral Gables monuments (available for download on the Google Play Store). The app allows the user to select a specific monument and then view photographs of the structure, read historical background about the building, and listen to audio files addressing different elements of the building. The use of an application on a smart device essentially activates and mobilizes the website content. Users can access the content to enrich their experience when they visit the historic building itself or they can take a virtual visit.

Implementation of Imaging Technologies

Photogrammetry revolutionized the way we study historic architecture in this project; photogrammetry is the science of extracting quantitative and qualitative information from photographs (digital imagery). The American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) defines photogrammetry as:

The art, science, and technology of obtaining reliable information about physical objects and the environment through the processes of recording, measuring, and interpreting photographic images and patterns of electromagnetic radiant energy and other phenomena. (ASPRS, 1980)

This technology embraces two broad categories of practice: qualitative and evaluative. In the first, classical category, quantitative measurements are used to compute ground positions and elevations, distances, areas, or volumes. The output of conventional photogrammetry is typically a map, drawing, or a 3D model of some real-world object or scene. The second evaluative category involves the evaluation and interpretation of photographs for practical applications in such fields as topographic mapping, architecture, engineering, archaeology, manufacturing, quality control, police traffic crash and crime scene investigations and geology, and meteorology. Modern photogrammetry overlaps extensively with Computer Vision (CV) and employs systems that acquire data through non-conventional photographic systems, for example, radar imaging, x-ray imaging, LIDAR, etc.

One particular CV concept that has become very popular and accessible over the past ten years is called Structure from Motion (SfM).[5] SfM is an approach for recreating a 3D scene from a set of 2D photographs. SfM is not an individual algorithm, but instead relies on the application of a pipeline of CV methods to produce results. As such, this approach is highly flexible and offers customized options to suit individualized and specific needs. This flexibility has brought about a rapid expansion in both open source and commercial implementations of the pipeline. The output of SfM is an unscaled (generally) 3D model called a “point cloud” (Figure 6).

This point cloud of the Church of the Little Flower consists of an aerial view of the sanctuary and the adjacent meeting hall.
Figure 6. Point Cloud of the Church of the Little Flower

Once the point cloud is created, software tools that were developed initially for processing LIDAR data can be used to construct a fully textured 3D model.

Point clouds produced by SfM are by themselves compelling and useful tools for viewing and interacting with art-historical objects and architecture.[6] Point clouds can also be processed into derivative digital products, of which the two most common are: 1) orthoprojected imagery (Figure 7); and 2) fully textured 3D models.

This orthophoto of the façade of the Church of the Little Flower highlights the precision of orthoprojected imagery, where distortion caused by the camera tilt and uneven terrain has been eliminated.
Figure 7. Orthophoto of the Church of the Little Flower

Unlike a perspectival photograph, an orthophoto has been geometrically corrected for image displacements caused by the tilting of the camera and terrain relief (topography). In an orthophoto, the perspective effect has been removed, resulting in a photograph with a uniform scale. It can thus be utilized in the same manner as a map to measure distances and angles between the features within the photograph. Orthophotos can often be created automatically as an extension of the SfM pipeline, and are easily scaled if physical measurements have been made of the physical context. A classic application of orthophotos is the creation of scaled drawings and maps. Like orthophotos, fully textured 3D models can be created from point clouds automatically, but the quality still needs to be improved and refined through the use of modeling software tools (Figures 8 and 9).

A point cloud rendering of the interior apse of the Congregational Church can be compared to an actual photograph of the same space to demonstrate the degree of accuracy and detail these types of images can achieve.
Figure 8. Point cloud rendering of the interior apse of the Congregational Church of Christ
This is a standard digital photograph of the apse of the Congregational Church, with its semicircular space divided into a grid pattern.
Figure 9. Interior apse in the Congregational Church of Christ

We also utilized small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) in conjunction with the photogrammetry. These small “drones” are mounted with an inexpensive camera (e.g., GoPro) and used to capture both aerial photos and photos of hard-to-reach elements of buildings or other large structures (Figure 10).

The use of drones (like the one pictured here) to take thousands of photographs of architectural structures provides a quick and inexpensive means of capturing photographic data to make point clouds.
Figure 10. Drone beginning its flight over the Congregational Church of Christ

During the past two to three years, these systems have become highly reliable and relatively inexpensive, with a combined cost (generally) less than $1,500 for the system, camera, spare parts, and other incidental equipment (e.g., carrying case). When used with the photogrammetry methods described above, high-resolution composite aerial photos (orthophotos) can be produced for an architectural site. Since these photos are captured at low altitude, they have much higher resolution than typical satellite imagery or traditional aerial photography. Pointclouds can be created for entire structures or can focus on individual, difficult-to-reach elements like a gargoyle, bell tower, or dome lantern (Figure 11).

Drones can fly over spaces that are difficult to access by other means, as seen in aerial view of the Church of the Little Flower’s tall dome and cross located at the pinnacle of the western façade.
Figure 11. Decorative architectural elements on the roofline of the Church of the Little Flower

There is great potential for the application of photogrammetry in the study of historic monuments given its low cost, high resolution, and great flexibility for employing the imagery generated. The use of (sUAS) or drones allows for a comprehensive photographic campaign that can provide images of architectural elements that are hard to reach or virtually impossible to view. Easily and inexpensively captured, the photographs can be used to create a complex point cloud and serve as a valuable documentary archive. The images are thus important documents unto themselves, but once meshed to form the point cloud, they can be deployed in a variety of different applications to provide significant information about a structure. The orthophoto produced from such images provides a view of the building that cannot be experienced from the ground. The orthophoto is also highly accurate, and can be used in historic preservation campaigns to provide the detailed documentation required to meet governmental standards [https://www.nps.gov/HDP/habs/index.htm]. The 3D nature of the point cloud and its interactive capability make it well suited to open source platforms like Sketchfab that enable the viewer to manipulate images to better understand and experience the modeled space. Point clouds can be created for both interior and exterior spaces and, in situations where LIDAR is prohibitively expensive or impractical, photogrammetric techniques can render all aspects of an architectural monument—interior, exterior, general, and detailed views—in an accurate but also visually compelling manner. The 3D models can also be re-rendered in physical form with 3D printers. The buildings can thus be recreated physically for study, research, and community education and outreach, providing an additional format for the viewer to explore the space, form, and details of the structure.

Our experience has shown that photogrammetric techniques provide a valuable addition to the art-historical documentation toolbox. One challenge posed by this technique, however, is that it requires a new way of thinking about taking photos—for photogrammetric techniques to be effective, there must be sufficiently redundant coverage of a structure for SfM to work well. Though the actual acquisition of the images is rapid, several hundred overlapping photos may be needed to create a satisfactory point cloud (probably a twenty-minute process) rather than the dozens one might have taken previously. Since this method can produce scaled models and images (orthophotos), it can be particularly useful in cases where time on site is limited. Under such circumstances, a sufficient number of both aerial and ground-based photos can often be obtained within a single day (depending on the size of the site) to create detailed models and site plans. These digital resources can then be used off-site to aid in creating or finalizing sketches and other types of documentation made on-site. Photos and other digital objects can also be reused when new methods become available or combined with new data collected in subsequent campaigns.[7] Other imaging systems like LIDAR, for example, may be a better option for capturing data where there is insufficient light or large interior areas to be modeled. The main disadvantage of LIDAR, however, is the cost of the system itself. The equipment can be quite expensive while SfM provides the opportunity to capture data about architectural structures and make high-quality 3D models at a much lower cost. This approach does not require special cameras, and for small datasets, there are numerous open source and commercial options available to process the imagery.

As an example, a point cloud and orthophoto for the Church of the Little Flower (Figure 6) was created using an inexpensive drone and a GoPro camera. The drone (3D robotics IRIS+) was programmed to fly a survey pattern that spanned the church and a small part of the surrounding area. This aerial survey produced several hundred overhead photographs from different perspectives. We then applied a set of CV algorithms to correct lens distortion and otherwise prepare the images for an SfM pipeline (research that will be addressed in another publication). The SfM pipeline was then run to produce the point cloud and orthophoto. We worked with open source systems including Bundler, VisualSfM and OpenDroneMap, and experimented with several commercial offerings. SfM pipeline development is a highly active area of research for both academic and commercial organizations, with available options changing frequently. We regularly review the current state of the field and often apply multiple pipelines on projects to evaluate performance and new features. As new photographic methods for creating and processing 3D images develop, we believe that the application of these techniques and use of the resultant products will become standard elements in art-historical documentation, preservation, and interpretation.

Outcomes and Implications

Classroom applications and pedagogy

The use of 3D modeling techniques to create rich interactive and immersive built environments has far-reaching implications for art-historical pedagogy and research as well as community-based historical preservation. The project outlined above employs activated learning and the flipped classroom models in defining the role played by students. The students actively engaged in the collection of data by photographically documenting the historical buildings while conducting research on other structures (those that have not been the object of in-depth study). Thus, the students were instrumental in determining the project’s content, populating the website with data that includes text, primary documents, historical and contemporary photographs, ephemera (e.g., postcards, brochures, advertising posters, newspaper articles), audio files, and a detailed bibliography. The class conducted fundamental art-historical research that has the added benefit of being accessible to the public through an interactive website. In future iterations of this classroom project, students will gain even more hands-on experience with photogrammetry as they themselves conduct the photographic survey to create interior 3D models from point clouds. They will also create models of decorative and small-scale objects within the structures, using photogrammetry on a micro scale to complement the larger-scale architectural implementation. In this way, the students will be involved in every step of the project—gathering data, creating a point cloud, and refining a model for display and study.

3D modeling techniques also allow for a compelling and immersive experience of architectural structures in the classroom. An extremely challenging aspect of teaching architectural history is the attempt to configure and analyze a 3D space with 2D media. In studying an architectural structure, one generally shows several different interior and exterior views, fragmenting the space into constituent parts that never quite add up to a whole. A 3D model of a building, however, allows viewers to experience a structure holistically, to understand how parts relate to the whole, and to get a real sense of what it means to occupy that space. Advancements in AR, MR, and VR (augmented, mixed, and virtual reality) further enhance these experiences, and the goal of this project is to make the modeled environment deeply engaging and rich in color, texture, and detail.[8] In the classroom space, students can travel to places they have never seen, visiting monuments in distant locations or experiencing reconstructions of lost structures. Employing these new approaches to understand and experience architectural space could also encourage students from other disciplines to take courses in art history. Innovative technologies, then, could serve as the “hook” that introduces students to a completely different field of study, expanding the purview of art history and promoting more cross-disciplinary interaction on campus. This modeling project also deepens the interaction of the students with the community by establishing an urban classroom. Students bring the classroom to the city by conducting research on the monuments themselves, implementing the skills of the discipline in a new environment. The interaction with and analysis of the completed interactive models furthers this connection in the opposite direction, incorporating the city into the classroom. As a result of this bi-directional movement, students may appreciate the differences in their perception of the architectural space as they alternate between real and virtual viewing modes.

Finally, introducing students to new imaging technologies teaches them skills that will be essential for their success in the professional world of art history, either in an academic or museum setting. Digital visualization provides the promise of universal access to international art treasures, and young professionals need to be familiar with imaging techniques and tools that can be used in teaching, in the creation of virtual museums and immersive exhibitions, and in the preservation of historical monuments. Knowledge of new technologies will also encourage experimentation and collaboration so that they themselves can create innovative applications for imaging techniques. For example, in this project, the computer science students working on the virtual tour app gained knowledge about art-historical practice and cultural heritage, while the art history students learned about new digital imaging technologies. This cross-disciplinary approach will lead to further collaborations and the sharing of knowledge and expertise between students at the University of Miami that they can implement when they enter the professional world.

The incorporation of technology into the art history classroom exemplified by this 3D modeling project provides tangible learning outcomes that are practical, intellectual, and theoretical. Students actively participate in the generation of knowledge, and they gain important skills to advance professional training in art history related fields. This project promotes community engagement by raising awareness of cultural issues that challenge us now and will continue to do so in the future. For example, how do communities balance an interest in historic preservation with urban development? How can cities and their inhabitants be informed and empowered concerning the safeguarding of civic structures and what role can technology play in addressing these questions? The introduction to new technologies can serve as a springboard for students to apply their skills in novel ways and can attract new students to art history. Interactive 3D models visualize space in an innovative fashion and therefore raise questions about the efficacy and implications of new visual forms. They broaden the art-historical toolkit, fostering debate about their interpretive potential. They also offer the promise of revolutionizing the field with a working method that highlights collaboration, innovation, and interdisciplinarity.

Research applications

The use of digital technologies in art-historical studies also has a profound effect on the research process and its published results. Art-historical research is usually a solitary affair, where an individual researcher devises a project, its methodology, and goals. However, the mastery of advanced imaging techniques—photogrammetry, LIDAR, 3D modeling software—requires the expertise of scholars both within and outside art history. The creation of immersive and interactive built environments, then, is a collaborative project that brings together experts in software engineering, computer vision, historic preservation, and architectural history. Such interdisciplinary projects are inherently creative as new technologies and knowledge are brought to bear on traditional questions and problems, with a result that is often greater than the sum of its parts. The use of technology can and does encourage the posing of new questions about visual culture and can only enrich the field with all the possibilities that exist to enhance the experience of visual imagery and 3D spaces.

Technological advances will also change the dissemination of knowledge and pose great challenges to the manner with which the academy assesses scholarly output. Academic presses are only beginning to publish monographs in an interactive digital format [http://www.sup.org/digital/] in which a web-based interface allows readers to consult a scholarly publication while simultaneously interacting with visual materials that can be manipulated, zooming in and out of images, rotating 3D models, and entering immersive built environments. Readers/viewers thus have extraordinary autonomy to determine how they wish to navigate the publication—reading only the text, concentrating on the visual imagery, or defining their own path that integrates the two components in an individualized and non-linear way. The potential of web-based scholarship is extraordinary, but the academy needs to be open to expanding what it deems original scholarly work, particularly when scholarly publications are such an essential part of the tenure and promotion process.

Cultural heritage and preservation

Ultimately, architectural structures are grounded in a community, and the study of historical monuments in Coral Gables encourages collaborations that connect the city to the university that is located within its confines. Students have the opportunity to participate in community outreach, see the impact that these buildings have in an urban setting, and experience the importance of their research for cultural development and historical preservation. The partnership between communities and academic institutions in cultural patrimony and preservation is a potentially fruitful one as academic innovators can apply their research methods and advanced technologies to real-world situations outside the university. Municipalities are often challenged by lack of funding for cultural development and historical preservation, and projects like the one outlined above for Coral Gables can be instrumental in enhancing public knowledge about historical buildings and supporting cultural heritage initiatives. The technologies and methodologies developed here to study historical monuments in Coral Gables can be assembled easily into a toolkit of sorts, applicable to the study of historical architecture in other locales. Beyond the immediate context of Mediterranean style architecture in the city of Coral Gables, these digital imaging approaches, with their relatively low cost, high quality versatile images, and applicability for a variety of platforms and formats, offer the opportunity for other cities to highlight and promote their own rich cultural heritage and preserve it for the future.


In his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin famously noted “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (Benjamin [1935] 1968, 221). An element of Benjamin’s “aura” would be the multisensory experience of an architectural space, its tactile and olfactory elements and acoustic qualities, all absent in a 3D model that highlights the visual. However, a significant difference between a standard photographic reproduction of a building and an interactive model is the model’s incorporation of an essential spatial dimension that reintroduces the element of time. Modeled architectural spaces have the potential to deepen our understanding of the built environment, especially when they are used in tandem with the actual structures themselves. Students can visit the historical building and its reproduction, analyzing the differences inherent in the real and virtual space and considering what advantages and disadvantages each mode of presentation poses. The advent of photography and film occasioned great anxiety concerning the efficacy and implications of mechanical reproduction, but Benjamin was not universally negative about the profound effects of new media on the perception and understanding of artworks. In fact, with the loss of aura that resulted from the emancipation of art from ritual came increased public access to art and therefore greater participation in the construction of meaning (Benjamin [1935] 1968, 220–21, 224–25). Benjamin appreciated the revolutionary potential of technology and the application of these new visual tools holds similar promise. What is gained and lost by experiencing a structure virtually, and how can that experience be enhanced? Such questions could form the basis of instructive class discussions as the visual simulacra we produce in our contemporary society become increasingly sophisticated and tantalizing. Unless the teaching environment is at a museum or monument, most art-historical study is conducted through reproductions. Our reliance on simulacra, then, invites us to consider how more complex and visually compelling images can change the way that we practice the discipline and approach the essential tools for the study of art and architecture. We may indeed lose the aura of the object, but what we gain is the facility and immediacy of access to places we might never have the chance to visit and experience firsthand.

Thus, the use of photogrammetry techniques and modeling software tools provides an innovative approach to the study of architecture in a university setting. These techniques are highly effective with great potential for development and improvement. They form part of a growing body of digital documentation for art history and the humanities that will become standard in the next few years as they provide unparalleled documentation as well as instructional and interpretive tools for visual and material culture. Experimenting with these techniques now will help refine and improve them so they can play an even greater role in the study of architecture for research, teaching, and historical preservation in the future. Technology, however, is just one component in these forward-looking art-historical practices that emphasize collaboration, interdisciplinarity, activated learning, and community interaction. Digital imaging technologies hold extraordinary potential to revolutionize the way we study, interpret, and interact with the built environment in both physical and virtual modes.


[1] See the works by Parks (2006; 2015) cataloguing the early history of the city and its distinctive Mediterranean architectural style. See also the City of Coral Gables website for a brief overview of the city’s history.

[2] The documentation of these five structures is currently ongoing.

[3] The University of Miami Center for Computational Science will be hosting the project website and is committed to ongoing hosting of the project as an aspect of its Smart Cities Program.

[4] For the use of crowdsourced photos to create 3D models, see Frahm, Heinly, Zheng, Dunn, Georgel, and Pollefeys (2013). Snavely, Seitz, and Szeliski (2006) provide an early interesting example of the potential for this concept. See also the discussion below about the creation and application of point clouds.

[5] http://www.cs.cornell.edu/~snavely/bundler/ is one of the earliest and most influential examples of these recent (i.e. the past ten years) implementations of SfM.

[6] There is an increasingly large body of projects undertaken over the past five years or so that employs point clouds to reconstruct historical monuments, archaeological sites, and 3D sculpture, but this technique has yet to be integrated into the mainstream of art-historical imaging practices. For some representative projects, see: http://danigayo.info/teaching/ticharte/; http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150622-andrew-tallon-notre-dame-cathedral-laser-scan-art-history-medieval-gothic/. The National Park Service has created a set of 3D models for Ellis Island; see https://www.nps.gov/hdp/exhibits/ellis/Ellis_Index.html. The point clouds themselves have been recognized as having their own artistic merit; a book entitled The Art of the Point Cloud (forthcoming in late 2017) will feature reproductions of “the most beautiful point clouds”; see http://www.spar3d.com/news/lidar/book-wants-beautiful-point-clouds/.

[7] Data collected through photogrammetry and LIDAR can be combined: once the data is integrated into a point cloud, the means through which it was generated is not particularly significant. The two sets can be brought together either manually (with a tool like Autocad) or computationally; see the open source project “Point cloud library” that outlines this process <http://pointclouds.org/documentation/tutorials/registration_api.php>.

[8] For some examples of immersive historical environments, see Hogarty and Ferguson (2014) and Sierra, De Prado, Ruiz Soler, and Codina (2017).


Benjamin, Walter. (1935) 1968. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, 217–51. New York: Schocken.

Frahm, Jan-Michael, Jared Heinly, Enliang Zheng, Enrique Dunn, Pierre Georgel, and Marc Pollefeys. 2013. “Geo-registered 3D Models from Crowdsourced Image Collections.” Geo-spatial Information Science 16, no. 1: 55–60. https://www.cs.unc.edu/~jheinly/publications/geo2013-frahm.pdf.

Hogarty, Sarah Bailey, and Brinker Ferguson. 2014. “The Immersive Period Room: Historic and Contemporary Approaches to Interactive Storytelling.” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014, January 30, 2014. http://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/the-immersive-period-room-historic-and-contemporary-approaches-to-interactive-storytelling/.

Parks, Arva. 2006. George Merrick’s Coral Gables: “Where Your ‘Castles in Spain’ Are Made Real!” Miami: Centennial Press.

———. 2015. George Merrick, Son of the South Wind: Visionary Creator of Coral Gables. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Sierra, Albert, Gabriel de Prado, Isis Ruiz Soler, and Ferran Codina. 2017. “Virtual Reality and Archaeological Reconstruction: Be There, Back Then.” MW17: MW 2017. February 14, 2017. http://mw17.mwconf.org/paper/virtual-reality-and-archaeological-reconstruction-be-there-be-back-then-ullastret3d-and-vr-experience-in-htc-vive-and-immersive-room/.

Snavely, Noah, Steven M. Seitz, and Richard Szeliski. 2006. “Photo Tourism: Exploring Image Collections in 3D.” ACM Transactions on Graphics (Proceedings of SIGGRAPH 2006). http://phototour.cs.washington.edu/Photo_Tourism.pdf.

About the Authors

Karen Mathews is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami. She specializes in Spanish and Spanish Colonial Art, and has been conducting a research project employing 3D imaging to analyze the historical architecture of the city of Coral Gables since 2016. She is also employing photogrammetric techniques in a classroom setting, where students are creating 3D models (using photogrammetric techniques and 3D modeling software) of Spanish Colonial objects in the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami and designing a virtual, web-based, exhibition of the artworks.

Chris Mader is the Director of Software Engineering at the University of Miami Center for Computational Science. He and his team have been working to apply new and emerging techniques in photogrammetry and image processing with a number of collaborators (including Dr. Mathews) during the past several years. These efforts include the application of low altitude aerial photography (drones) to create point clouds (3D models), orthophotos, and maps. Examples include the work in Coral Gables (described in this article) as well as photogrammetry/surveying of the Iglesia de Santa Lucia (Santiago de Cuba) and “The Residency” on Harbor Island (Bahamas).

Amin Sarafraz is currently an associate scientist at the University of Miami Center for Computational Science. He received his Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Miami in 2012 and he also holds a M.Sc. in Photogrammetry from the University of Tehran. He has been working on mapping informal cities using drone images for more than two years. Prior to joining UM, he worked on several mapping and GIS projects in Iran. His Ph.D. work involved applications of computer vision in civil engineering, including underwater imaging, image enhancement in scattering media, 3D reconstruction, and non-destructive testing.

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