This is heritage science…3D modelling and light mapping of the Whistler Room, Mottisfont Abbey

The National Trust is investigating two techniques as a basis for creating 3D models of rooms and buildings that can be used for purposes as diverse as disaster management planning, enhancing public understanding of rooms, or environmental planning. Here Anna Pizzey describes a project to create a detailed 3D model of the Whistler Room at Mottisfont using 3D digital laser scanning and Structure from Motion (SFM) photographic imaging. 

One of the treasures of the National Trust’s historic house at Mottisfont near Romsey, Hampshire is the ‘Whistler Room’, so-called because of the captivating trompe l’œil interior painted by the celebrated British artist Rex Whistler in 1938-9. The artist was commissioned by the socialite Maud Russell to create the dazzling interior for her salon where she entertained the social and political elite of the time. Recalling the medieval origins of the house as an Augustinian priory, Whistler created the illusion of a Gothic room with trophies, moulded plasterwork and a smoking urn with wraiths of smoke appearing to rise towards the ceiling. Today, the house at Mottisfont receives around 165,000 visitors a year, many of whom come particularly to see this remarkable room.

Although the Trust has a photographic record of the room, they lack a detailed 3D model of the interior that would allow them to accurately recreate it should a disaster such as a fire or flood occur. The recent devastating blaze at another of the Trust’s properties at Clandon Park demonstrates the urgency of compiling such a record.

The use of digital technologies for heritage preservation and interpretation is a growing area of interest within the heritage sector, and a focus for the new ICOMOS-UK Digital Technologies Committee. Emerging technologies have great potential for use in the detailed three-dimensional recording of historic buildings and collections, as opposed to more traditional two-dimensional methods of survey. This opens the way for a more advanced understanding of historic sites and artefacts as well as for innovative approaches to their interpretation.

surveying 1
Taking readings for the light survey

The University of Portsmouth is developing the use of laser scanning and 3D modelling for a range of applications including modelling terrain, surface decay of historic stonework, and Building Information Modelling (BIM). Another topic of research interest is the simulation of daylight conditions in heritage buildings using 3D modelling. This project, which runs for 18 months until August 2017, aims to draw on specialist expertise from the University’s Department of Geography and the School of Architecture to utilise a range of scanning and imaging surveying techniques to create a detailed and accurate model of the Whistler Room which can form an element in the Trust’s Disaster Management Plan.

laser scanner
Laser scanner in the Whistler Room

The testing of different digital survey and modelling technologies to capture trompe l’oeil artwork where the painted surface mimics three dimensional structure is of particular interest in this project. It will also investigate the daylight conditions of the room using simulation as an aid to managing the safe shading and natural lighting of the painted surfaces. The testing of this range of techniques will help the Trust to evaluate potential technologies that may be of use in the future.

surveying 2
Taking readings for the light survey

The ambition of this project,  is to produce a detailed 3D model of the Whistler Room at Mottisfont. Two alternative technologies will be tested to survey the room as a basis for building the model, namely 3D digital laser scanning and Structure From Motion (SFM) photographic imaging. The reflection qualities of the painted surfaces will also be surveyed using a luminance meter. The room presents particular challenges for these modelling technologies in capturing the illusionary 3D qualities of the trompe l’oeil artwork. Investigating the capabilities of the technologies for this purpose is an aim of this project. Any resulting models along with the associated data will be provided to the Trust as a digital archive to aid Disaster Management Planning. The models can also be used for interpretation and enhancing public understanding of the room.

Whistler Room rough model
Initial rough data from the scan

In addition, a 3D model of the interior of the room will be used as a basis for simulating annual seasonal daylight conditions to investigate the possibility of exhibiting the interior in natural daylight at certain times of the year. As a comparative analysis, a series of small data loggers discreetly located around the room will monitor the existing lighting conditions over the course of the year.

To find out more:

Dr Karen Fielder, University of Portsmouth School of Architecture

Anna Pizzey, National Trust, Mottisfont Abbey

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