UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 6 |
Jun. 3, 2004
Totem in 3D: Museum of Anthropology Recreates a Northwest
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
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
“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
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,”
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