Polychromy Revealed: from medieval wood craftsmanship to 3D printing (Paola Ricciardi)

The next post in our British Science Week 2018 series is by guest writer Paola Ricciardi. Paola Ricciardi is the Research Scientist at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. She specialises in the non-invasive analysis of polychromy (multi-coloured painting) in cultural heritage objects. In this blog, Paola talks about a workshop on digital imaging, modelling, making and interpretation of 3D cultural heritage objects and their replicas.

The Fitzwilliam Museum holds a small but exceptional collection of medieval wood sculptures, largely polychrome, made across Western Europe c.1300-1550. For the most part extremely fragile, most of the sculptures have never been exhibited and are largely unknown to the public and to academics. Following a 10-month pilot project in 2017, we are currently running a series of activities funded by the Arts and Humanities Impact Fund of the University of Cambridge. These activities are aimed at maximising the impact of the pilot and at defining routes to impact for a large-scale research project – POLYCHROMY REVEALED – which will enable us to investigate, interpret, conserve and display the collection, ultimately transforming it into a resource that can be utilised for teaching, research and public engagement.

Picture of pair of kneeling angels. Copyright Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Pair of Kneeling Angels, Northern Italy?, 15th Century. Image copyright – The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Three events, running in March-May 2018, are particularly aimed at opening a dialogue with scholars, NGOs, industrial partners and crafts/technology practitioners interested in three-dimensional digital modelling; making; interpretation of; and interaction with, cultural heritage objects and their replicas. We want to assess the state-of-the-art of research in these fields and to establish guidelines for the choice of suitable and affordable solutions, which can then be shared with other museums and cultural institutions. Museum audiences are also involved and will be asked to respond to/interact with the outcomes of the initial phase of activities, in order to inform our methodology and choices for the large-scale project.

The real potential of ever-improving 3D visualisation and ‘making’ technologies is still to be fully explored and as such it is the focus of much attention, as demonstrated for example by a well-attended two-day conference recently held at the British Museum and by the ReACH project, led by the V&A Museum. On 15 March, we ran a half-day workshop in collaboration with the University’s Digital Humanities Network. The workshop brought together experts in a range of topics related to the study of, and interaction with, three-dimensional museum objects, such as 3D sensing, digital modelling, digital and physical making, as well as interpretation and outreach. Speakers and participants discussed the various ways in which digital 3D methods can support and enhance our study and the public’s perception of three-dimensional objects.

Image of panel of speakers. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum
Panel speakers. From left to right: Steven Dey, Anais Aguerre, Jonathan Beck and Panel Chair, David Saunders. Image copyright – The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Workshop participants were given a demonstration of a structured light scanner which was used to produce models of a selection of polychrome wooden sculptures in the Fitzwilliam Museum collection. They were then asked to work in groups and issue a ‘creative challenge’ to design and produce objects inspired by the original medieval sculptures, based on the 3D models.

Image of Jonathan Beck using a structure light scanner to produce a 3D model of a medieval sculpture. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Jonathan Beck using a structured light scanner to produce a 3D model of a medieval sculpture. Image copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The challenge will soon be advertised to members of Cambridge’s Community Workshop MakeSpace and more broadly, and will result in their creations being displayed during a late-night opening of the Fitzwilliam Museum in May. We hope people will feel inspired by the creative challenge and we are very curious to see what they will create!

Image of working together to issue a creative challenge. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Working together to issue a creative challenge. Image copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Find out more about the Polychromy Revealed project

The Fitzwilliam Museum houses the principal collections of art and antiquities of the University of Cambridge, and holds over half a million objects in its care. It leads the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM), a consortium of the eight University Museums and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, which works in partnership with other Cambridge University collections as well as with museums regionally, nationally and internationally. The University’s collections are a world-class resource for researchers, students and members of the public representing the country’s highest concentration of internationally important collections, all within walking distance of the City Centre. Arts Council England has awarded UCM National Portfolio Organisation status from 2018-2022.

Five minutes with…Keats Webb, PhD student, SEAHA; Digital Imaging Specialist, Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

What’s your background in heritage science?

I have been doing scientific and computational imaging for research and conservation documentation of the Smithsonian collections at the Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) for five years. I have a background in fine art photography and was trained on-site by a senior conservator turned imaging specialist in the specific techniques and applications within conservation.

I use a range of techniques including multispectral and hyperspectral imaging, photogrammetry and 3D scanning, digital radiography and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI).

In the autumn, I started a heritage science program for the Science & Engineering Arts Heritage & Archaeology (SEAHA). SEAHA is a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) funded by the Engineering & Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) created by University College London, University of Brighton and University of Oxford.

What’s you role at SEAHA and MCI?

As a student I am researching the spectral and 3D imaging techniques for object documentation and the eventual integration of the techniques.

As a digital imaging specialist, I am working with a range of scientific and computational imaging techniques to answer research and conservation questions about objects and collections coming from conservators, curators and researchers.

Keats Webb 3D scanning a test object (a ceramic figure from Senegal) as part of her research with the Cultural Informatics Research Group at the University of Brighton.


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

Part of my research has involved a case study imaging collection items from the Freud Museum in London, UK. The Museum is Freud’s last residence where he moved in 1938 to flee from the Nazi’s in Austria. After Freud passed away in 1939, his daughter lived in the house for another forty years and the Museum opened in 1986. The collection is a combination of libraries, archives and about 2000 antiquities (Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Oriental). Freud was very interested in archaeology and antiquities and used archaeology as a metaphor for psychoanalysis. It was quite exciting to be working in Freud’s study and to be able to image a wide range of objects of different materials and origins.

Keats web
Keats imaging a white ground lekythos (#4492) at the Freud Museum.


Who inspires you?

In 2009, I was taken on as an intern by MCI Senior Furniture Conservator, Melvin Wachowiak. Mel was a Senior Furniture Conservator turned imaging specialist with an enthusiasm and passion for conservation and new technologies. Mel was very generous with sharing his knowledge and expertise and he was dedicated to mentoring and training others. I had the privilege of having Mel as a mentor for nearly five years. He was very thoughtful and meticulous in his work, he valued collaboration, he was enthusiastic about the process and results, and he had a priority for accessible techniques that maintained innovation.  Mel passed away in May 2014, but I still find him to be an inspiration for the work that I do and will continue to do.

What do you love most about your job?

I absolutely love my work as an imaging specialist at MCI!! MCI does not have a collection, but supports the 19 Smithsonian museums and galleries in addition to the research facilities. This allows me to work with a range of collections and materials, which makes the work  interesting and exciting. I have had the opportunity to work on paintings, mummies, musical instruments, fossils, just about anything you can imagine in a museum collection.

As a student, I have had an incredible opportunity to expand my skill set and focus on my research abilities while working on different collections and making new contacts. I enjoy meeting other heritage professionals that are excited and interested about cultural heritage imaging, and the SEAHA program has allowed me to expand my network into the EU.

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science?

The interdisciplinary nature of the field and the ability to use science to learn more about our heritage makes heritage science really exciting and great!


Find out more about SEAHA and its work at www.seaha-cdt.ac.uk