As good as the real thing? 3D models and representations

There is a certain thrill that comes with experiencing a real piece of history in a museum or library. The ability to see and sometimes interact with an object that is directly linked to the past provides a greater understanding than simply reading the narrative from a book. When it is not possible for a cultural institution to provide public access to artefacts they can now present 3D models or 3D representations of these artefacts. But do these representations provide the same connection as the authentic artefact? Are they as good as the real thing?

There are many advantages to 3D models and representations. Museums and other cultural institutions can make use of online 3D representations to showcase the artefacts that they have in exhibitions. These representations can be used to encourage visitors to visit the exhibitions to see the original artefact. If the real artefact cannot be put on show in the museum, a 3D model can be the next best thing. Digital representations can also be used to preserve the past where it may be difficult or even impossible to preserve the original. The use of digitised objects allows greater opportunity for public engagement with the past (Butcher, et al. 12). The use of these digitised objects is also a great asset to the education sector to enhance learning in schools. Children today are more comfortable with technology due to being surrounded by technology at home. The term ‘digital native’ may be somewhat far-fetched but these children are growing up in an age where technology is everywhere. Therefore, it only makes sense to bring this new technology into the classroom.

Figure 1: Student examining a 3D model and 3D virtual representation of a fossil (Butcher, et al. 13).

A case study was undertaken by researchers in a school in Utah where they found that the students engaged incredibly well with the digital objects; the 3D models and 3D representations on tablets (Butcher, et al. 13). However the concept of digitised objects enhancing learning in the classroom was not discussed in the report. It makes sense that children would be fascinated by new objects that they have not been exposed to before. It is possible that access to such digital materials would enhance learning but there are no studies to back this up. A similar study could be undertaken but perhaps with a goal to gauge how digitised objects may enhance learning in the classroom. With this information, it would then be clearer to see if indeed digitised objects do encourage more in depth learning and a greater understanding of the past.

While having a 3D representation of an artefact is a great benefit to a museum, library or school, it is not the same as the original. Stuart Jeffrey talks about this idea of “digital aura” and how this “aura” can change the way an object is received by the public (Jeffrey, 145). But how can an aura be measured? The meaning or connection a person receives from one object may not be the same as another. Is the digital representation a piece of creative work or simply a copy? I would argue that it depends who is interacting with the object; it is a personal preference. Some may be content with an accurate copy, being able to touch, examine and interact with the object. Others may prefer to experience the original object behind a glass in a museum. Personal or even societal preference is not something that can be easily gauged, it changes over time. Digitised objects are still a relatively new phenomenon and it may take the public some time to fully engage with the possibilities.

I believe that, in some contexts. digital representations are as good as the real artefact. They offer opportunities for further learning and engagement with the past. It may not be the same as interacting with the true artefact but it is certainly the next best thing.


Butcher, Kirsten, Madlyn Runburg, Michelle Hudson, “Using digitized objects to promote critical thinking and engagement in classrooms”, Library Hi Tech News, vol. 34, no. 7, 2017, pp. 12-15, Accessed 31st Oct. 2017.

Jeffrey, Stuart, “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation”, Open Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 144-152, Accessed 31st Oct. 2017.

Latour, Bruno, Adam, Lowe, “The Migration of the Aura or How to explore the original through its facsimiles”, Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, 2010, pp. 275-297, Accessed 31st Oct. 2017.   

2 thoughts on “As good as the real thing? 3D models and representations

  1. I found your post extremely intriguing, and I agree that 3D models are essential, for the perseveration of original artefacts and also a great attribution to Museums. This innovative way of preserving our past allows us to connect with artefacts, that are possibly too delicate to handle, or in places that are closed off from the public. The case study involving the school in Utah is interesting, as it highlights how this new way of interacting with cultural heritage, engages people from a very young age and in my opinion could engage people at any age. Your suggestion of a goal to be put in place would evidently display the achievements if any, that the children had accomplished. As introducing a new technology to children will inevitably result in their fascination with it. However, if there was a task in hand, their interaction could be measured on how well they tackled the assignment.
    The notion of ‘aura’ is difficult to define and I also agree that it is personal preference. Everyone who views an original painting, each and every observer will invest in different ideas and meanings. I believe that an original painting or artefact, withholds a certain ‘aura’ that was built up from scratch, a product of the creators mind. The copy and the original painting or artefact exists in two different spaces and times. Original paintings and artefacts deteriorate slightly overtime and in some cases so much, that only hyperspectral scanners can unveil what markings were originally on display. But how does this impact the ‘aura’ of the copy when it presents more to the naked eye than the original? Even though copies can portray a great deal of information about the original, they will not outshine the value of the authentic paintings or artefacts that consist of such credibility.

  2. A very insightful post offering due consideration from both sides of the argument in relation to the ‘aura’ of an object. I can see that, like myself, you can see the advantages and disadvantages of the notion of 3D representations.
    I very much liked how you have described 3D representations compared to the original artefact as “certainly the next best thing”. This, I think, is important. I would agree with you that these technologies and their products are are of great benefit to museums and other historical institutions in circumstances where a particular object was destroyed or damaged beyond repair, restoring something that was once lost. They are the next best thing. There are not, however, the same as the original in terms of their ‘aura’. Admittedly, I would have originally argued along the lines that the ‘aura’ is overrated, and that a good 3D representation should instill the same appreciation and enjoyment in a consumer of the object.
    However, as recently as a few days ago, I stood in Florence, in front of Michelangelo’s ‘David’. In its presence, I certainly felt its tradition, its substantial duration, and its testimony in history, or the ‘aura’ as Bentkowska-Kafel (2012) defined it. Five minutes from the museum stands a replica of the statue, identical in every way except one: its position in space in time. Perhaps I didn’t feel the same because I had just seen the original and the novelty had somehow worn off. The replica was quite impressive and had attracted just as many visitors. Perhaps visitors who didn’t know it was a replica experienced the same ‘aura’ i felt visiting the original. I wholeheartedly agree with you that the aura is immeasurable and depends on the person interacting with the object. I think we would agree that the ‘aura’ is a completely singular, personal experience, a notion that is capable of migration and a varying degree of meaning to everyone. A great read which I thoroughly enjoyed!

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