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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 6 | Jun. 3, 2004

Totem in 3D: Museum of Anthropology Recreates a Northwest Coast Monument

One pixel at a time

By Erica Smishek

Imagine being able to “travel through” a traditional Northwest Coast village site that no longer exists.

Thanks to three-dimensional laser scanning technology, the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at UBC may one day make this virtual re-creation a reality.

“New tools are changing the way we’re teaching and conducting research, the way we’re preserving and presenting cultural objects,” says MOA projects manager / curator Bill McLennan. “The future is almost scary.”

In consultation with the Haida Nation, McLennan and his colleague, designer Skooker Broome, worked with a Vancouver-based firm to scan a totem pole collected from the Ninstints Village on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1957 and now housed in the museum. The totem, which dates back to the mid-19th century, features a bear with a frog in its mouth and a wolf. It has weathered, been broken into three parts and carries only small traces of its original paint.

“The technology allows us to basically retrieve the information that is in a piece so the information isn’t lost,” says McLennan. “We can make it available for people studying the culture, or for young artists learning their craft.”

The tripod-mounted portable scanning system measured every square millimetre of the entire surface geometry of the totem in “xyz” co-ordinates, thereby completing a digital record of the monument and capturing it in the form of a point cloud -- a dense, accurate and interactive 3-D model that can be rotated and viewed from any perspective on a computer.

“First we get an exact wire mesh of the whole piece,” McLennan explains. “Then we can lay on the ‘skins’ [layers of wood]. Working with contemporary artists, we can determine what the colours were like in the 1850s when it was carved. We can also bisect the pole at any point and can get an exact representation of the thickness of the wood.”

A plastic model generated from a 3-D laser printer as well as two-dimensional prints provide additional documentation of the object.

Developed by Leica Geosystems, an international company serving customers in surveying, engineering, construction, GIS, mapping, industry and other areas of activity, the 3-D laser scanner has traditionally been used as a tool to create “as-built” documentation of large structures and sites like pulp mills, oil refineries and dams. Scanning provides a safe, time-efficient, cost-efficient and accurate way to determine how a building has changed since it was built.

More recently, companies that market the product have looked for other applications to showcase the technology, using it to prepare “as-found” documentation of dinosaur bones, European cathedrals and castles, and even the Statue of Liberty.

“Traditional technology has not been able to capture that much data,” says Christine Young, who worked on the pilot project with MOA. “With 3-D scanning, it’s almost overkill what you can do with it.”

Young, director of marketing for a firm that distributes the scanners, explains they can be positioned at significant distances from the structures that are being measured, eliminating the need for activities such as climbing and crawling that pose the risk of accident or the need to physically touch items that are often very vulnerable.

Moreover, she says, people don’t have to be in the same room as the object in order to benefit from the data, thereby expanding the research and learning capabilities.

In the case of Northwest Coast artifacts, McLennan explains, many were dispersed in museums and private collections throughout the world and are not always accessible. Even those remaining in the province “are so isolated and often difficult to get to.”

Plus they are rapidly deteriorating.

“The poles in SGang Gwaay ’llnagaay [Ninstints] are really on their last legs,” says Guujaaw, president of the Council of the Haida Nation and an acclaimed carver who once assisted Bill Reid. “In another decade, they won’t be here. Our people want to let them finish their course.”

Guujaaw consulted with the museum on the scanning project and sees great potential in the technology for his people and for their own research centres.

“By getting that record, we would be able to preserve the poles and information about them for future generations,” he says.

Since scanning can be completed hundreds of metres from a structure or geographical site, researchers can digitally capture an entire scene and draw on other resources like historical photographs to get a complete picture of the setting.

With the innovative pilot project complete, McLennan hopes to secure a virtual museum grant from Heritage Canada or other sources to digitally record Ninstints Village, a world heritage site and the earliest recorded Haida village of the south Queen Charlotte Islands, where some free standing poles (but no other structures) remain.

“The rocks and hills are still there and we can determine where the poles were,” he says. “We can essentially step back in history and reconstruct villages.”

Such projects, he says, demonstrate how technology can bring cultural works back to First Nations and give the rest of us more insight into the First Peoples and B.C. cultural communities.

“It’s a fantastic way of studying history, of bringing it back and of helping people understand and respect world cultures,” McLennan says. “It’s really exciting.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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