This post was written by Philip Carter, Head of IHR Digital. To see the 3D printer in action visit the IHR stand at History Day. Free registration is here.

Lewis Chess Set on Sketchfab (The British Museum)

On History Day, on 31 October, IHR Digital will demonstrate its new 3D printer and 3D imaging equipment. This will be the first public outing of our new kit which we’ve purchased in conjunction with the School’s Institute of Classical Studies. Together we’re setting up a ‘3D Centre for History and Classics’. From 2018 the Centre will run courses on how and why to use 3D technologies in historical research. At History Day you’ll be able to register you interest for one of these courses at the IHR stand.

The IHR has recently taken possession of a high performance computer on which staff and researchers can practise high quality photogrammetry; that is, the creation of three-dimensional representations derived from digital photographs of 2D images or physical objects.

Today’s photogrammetry software will run well enough on a regular desktop computer, and is able to convert images taken on a standard digital camera. However, the IHR’s hi-spec workstation allows us to create exceptionally high-quality images, as well as complex visualisations that can be experienced through the ‘immersive technology’ of virtual reality (VR). Our purchase of a 3D printer means we can also create physical models from these images, using an additive process by which—layer-by-layer—the printer builds up an exact scale representation.

Photogrammetry, virtual reality and three-dimensional printing may at first seem far removed from historical study as practised at the IHR. But 3D is now an important way to undertake and present research, especially in areas such as architectural, urban and topographical history, or histories of material culture. It similarly creates opportunities for new forms of archival and object-based teaching, which permit otherwise rare artefacts to be viewed closely and remotely ‘in the round’, or handled and used as three-dimensional models.

A queen from the Lewis chessmen from Sketchfab (The British Museum)

3D technology also helps us to assemble and explore what was hitherto lost. Examples include the recreation of historical built environments, as depicted in the Virtual St Paul’s website or the recently completed St Stephen’s Chapel project. There’s also the opportunity to reconstruct severely damaged documents, of which a prime example is the Great Parchment Book of the Honourable the Irish Society: compiled in 1639, destroyed by fire in 1786, and now readable again as a flattened 3D representation.

It’s no surprise that museums and galleries make good use of three-dimensional technology to promote their collections. Notable here are the 3D Petrie Museum, at University College London, and the British Museum, while artefacts from many other institutions appear on digital platforms such as Sketchfab. Within universities, three-dimensional technology (while increasingly compact and affordable) is often reserved for those studying engineering, the medical and physical sciences architecture and archaeology.

Critical engagement with 3D images or printed objects is much less common for undergraduate and graduate historians, often because the equipment remains the preserve of other departments. Now that we’ve acquired this technology for the IHR, we’re looking to establish the Institute as a centre for historical applications of imaging, modelling and virtual reality; one where historians can gain new skills and to which they’ll bring research data to model and share in new ways.

We hope these options will be on display at the IHR’s forthcoming Winter Conference—Home: New Histories of Livingon 8-9 February 2018. In keeping with its focus on new research practices, the conference will include papers from historians using 3D technologies to recreate and experience, for example, the early modern home from data gathered in probate records.

Following the Winter Conference, we’ll invite historians to try out the IHR’s imaging and printing equipment for themselves. In doing so, we hope that a technology of the late 2010s and 2020s will help rekindle a Pollardian ambition fostered in the 1920s: of the Institute as a national ‘historical laboratory’—a place for experimentation and training in new approaches to the past.