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E-Curator | Arts and Humanities E-Science Support Centre

E-Curator: 3D colour scans for remote object identification and assessment

The E-Curator project aimed to explore the potential of e-science technologies in documentation, conservation and communication of material heritage by recording museum artefacts in 3D – captured through the application of 3D laser scanning. The project involved the development of traceable post-processing methods in order to disseminate the 3D colour point cloud over the web. A prototype application was tested by conservators, curators and museum and heritage researchers.

Project partners
Project team
Project information
Description of aims
Description of methods
Description of outcomes and issues
Details of any training provided
Technologies, tools, software, services and resources used
Standards employed; data formats and protocols
Significance for Research
Future Work Enabled
Evidence of Dissemination Activities
Conclusions about e-Science
Further information, bibliography and links

Project partners

    Museums and Collections, University College London (UCL), UK
    Civil and Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London, UK
    Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK

Other participating institutions:

    Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology [MAA], University of Cambridge, UK, English Heritage, UK

Project team

Principal Investigator


    Dr Ian Brown, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Project Ph.D

    Francesca Simon Millar, UCL Anthropology Department

Project assistants

    Mona Hess, UCL Museums and Collections
    Yean-Hoon Ong, UCL Museums and Collections

Project website and contact details


Email: e-curator(at)ucl.ac.uk

Project information

Funding bodies

The E-Curator project was jointly funded by the UK AHRC-JISC-EPSRC e-Science Initiative (the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Joint Information Systems Committee, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).

Type of project

Heritage e-science

Application area

Museum object, e-science, 3D recording, visualisation, data set, traceable storage, traceable production, dissemination.

Project duration

1 October 2007 – 12 November 2008

Description of aims

The E-Curator project aimed to enhance current practice of documenting museum artefacts, which relies mainly on photographs and description. By creating detailed sets of 3D data the project set out to explore the use of such records in documentation, conservation and study of museum objects. The objective was also to facilitate access the e-artefacts and enhance international scholarship.

The E-Curator project aimed to:

  • Explore the use of high-end 3D colour laser scanning and other e-science technologies to capture 3D records of museum artefacts;
  • Develop a traceable methodology for recording the surface detail and colour quality of a range of object types and materials;
  • Explore the potential for producing validated datasets that would allow detailed and close scientific examination of groups of objects, their materials, manufacturing processes, monitoring wear and deterioration, and reduce physical handling of objects;
  • Examine how the resulting datasets could be transmitted, shared and compared in a secure and user-friendly computing environment;
  • Encourage and facilitate the user input, from curators and conservators, thus begin to build expertise in the use and transmission of 3D scan data as a curatorial tool.

Description of methods

Data capture

The artefacts selected for scanning varied in type and scale and represented a range of materials and textures, each posing different recording challenges. Six core objects were selected for recording. The original choice of representative objects from UCL Museums and Collections was widened to fourteen objects in order to accommodate objects from external collaborating institutions. The artefacts included three Egyptian artefacts: a small scarab (UC 36113), a quartzite statue (UC 55606), and a Bronze statuette (UC 8231); two ethnographic artefacts were a fragile mask woven from natural fibres from Papua New Guinea (Z.0114), a West African container for medicines bound with a copper wire, containing a piece of ant-hill (M99). Two oil paintings on canvas: Still Life with Fish (PC5158), c. 1939, by Henriette Eugenia Berger, and a Beach Scene (PC5535), c. 1890, by Walter Westley Russell. Zoological objects were plaster casts of a dodo’s head (Y85) and foot (Y86), and another, third cast of Archaeopteryx lithographia in the British Museum (Y45 B200); a bronze seal of Thornton College in the Collection of English Heritage (EH88257407). Two artefacts of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge: an eighteenth-century canoe-shaped wooden Maori flute, Putorino, (MAA 1922.934) and a wooden fish hook (D 1914.71) in the Captain Cook/Sandwich Collection.

Scanning of selected artefacts was carried out using a state-of-the-art Arius3D Foundation Model 150 Colour Scanner, unique in the UK. The scanner, commissioned at UCL in 2006 as part of a collaborative partnership with Arius3D (Mississauga, Canada), is able to deliver 3D coloured point data at a sampling interval of 0.1mm (~250 dots per inch) with an accuracy of the order of 0.025mm over the surface of an object. Objects of up to 90cm x 50cm in cross section can be scanned (the largest object selected for scanning for this research project was a painting of approx. 42 x 50 cm). The scanner collects 3D geometry information through the use of a laser triangulation system which is sensitive to depth variations of the order of 0.02mm, whilst colour is collected by analysis of the reflected light from red, green and blue lasers at wavelengths of 638 nm, 532 nm, and 473 nm.

Data post-processing

The post-processing involved cleaning and alignment of captured data, colour correction, and recording metadata. This is typically the most time consuming step in the creation of digital surrogates of objects. The project aimed to develop a traceable methodology for the production of 3D records so that the procedures could be repeated on the same object with the same results. The variety of artefacts required considerable flexibility and involved arbitrary decisions; all changes applied to scanned data were logged to allow inspection at any time. A set of file extensions has been developed for ease of identification of these post-processing metadata.

Data storage and use

E-Curator employed the Storage Resource Broker (SRB) developed by San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC, http://www.sdsc.edu/srb/index.php/Main_Page) for the management and storage of 3D data and metadata. A web-based application called the data insertion tool was created to allow a museum technician to edit, upload and remove 2D and 3D data sets, and relevant metadata, to and from the SRB storage system. A prototype web application was developed for presentation of 3D records of artefacts via a standard browser (N.B. The installation of Microsoft display plugin is required in Firefox).

Description of outcomes and issues

Fourteen 3D object records were created and opened for scrutiny and comparison alongside object information, 2D images, and scanning and processing metadata.
The records are available online at http://data02.geospatial.ucl.ac.uk:8080/eCurator05/pages/main.jsp. The web client for 3D model visualisation was the most important software component developed for the E-Curator project, providing the user access via a web browser to 3D colour scan data and relevant catalogue and metadata information. 3D models are best viewed within the UCL campus, and restricted online global viewing is also possible.

The process of selection, scanning and visualisation of artefacts required collaboration of computer scientists and subject specialists across different museum collections. The need to articulate and communicate research questions of mutual interest required crossing disciplinary boundaries, discrete conventions and terminologies. The success in this area represents an important result.

Although the project used the best available technology and has produced object records that provide significant new information over and above photographs used in current museum practice, it became clear that for 3D colour scans to be of real use to the museum and conservation specialists a higher specification is needed. This involves higher resolution, better rendition of colour, reflectivity and texture. Also needed is the ability to combine several different types of image data in order to allow for more detailed examination and comparison. The issues of accuracy and reliability of 3D records came forth during the processing and editing of the captured data and demonstrated the importance of track-recording the changes made.

Although the Storage Resource Broker software was successfully integrated with the web application to store object scans and metadata, the limitations of the E-Curator interface became apparent. While this system worked successfully within and from outside UCL, the tests showed more intensive remote access to the highest-resolution scans would benefit from SRB's federation and replication features. Further development will automatically connect E-Curator users to local versions at different institutions when available (federation option of SRB), reducing the time taken to retrieve commonly-accessed objects and also minimising bandwidth demands on remote connections. The replication and synchronization feature of SRB allows reciprocal back-up of data.

Details of any training provided

Several formative workshops were held at all three partner institutions to explore how users interact with real artefacts to create condition reports and catalogue entries, and subsequently to investigate interactions with the 3D scans. The project introduced curators and conservators to the potential use and transmission of 3D data sets. Despite the lack of previous experience of dealing with scan data and metadata, they were very ready to engage with the potential of the technology and keen to see it developed further.

Technologies, tools, software, services and resources used

  • Arius3D Foundation Model 150 Colour Scanner, http://www.arius3d.com
  • A3DScan and Pointstream software, proprietary software of Arius3D for data processing, www.pointstream.net. The pattern comparison was executed with 3D Image Suite Pointstream using its inbuilt cloud registration and Fourier transform capabilities.
  • Storage Resource Broker (SRB) storage system by San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), http://www.sdsc.edu/srb/index.php/Main_Page
  • Database SRB Metadata Catalogue [MCAT]
  • Servers: Tomcat server (http://java.sun.com/products/jsp/tomcat/ 18 May 2008), Java middleware using JARGON Java API (http://www.sdsc.edu/srb/index.php/Jargon 18 May 2008) to connect to SRB.
  • Internet: Internet Explorer, Arius3D ActiveX Browser Plug-In.

Standards employed, data formats and protocols

E-Curator employed standards proprietary to scanning hardware and software used, including current web standards. The project has developed a new protocol for tracing the methodology used.

Significance for Research

The project confirmed the role of interdisciplinary research and the benefit of e-science applications in the study, preservation and communication of cultural heritage. The application of 3D laser scanning for recording artefacts is becoming ever more popular, but no previous project carried out in the UK has achieved a comparable level of sophistication and complexity, or involved the museum community in shaping the outcomes.

Future Work Enabled

The E-Curator application source code has been made freely available under an open source GPL licence in Sourceforge at http://sourceforge.net/search/?type_of_search=soft&words=e-curator. It is open to further development subject to making the new modifications freely available under the same GPL licence.

The impact of E-Curator will be further enhanced through the doctoral research carried out by the project research student, Francesca Simon Millar. Francesca will expand the scope of E-Curator by focusing on new material and will replicate the design of the E-Curator project on a larger scale, involving more stakeholders.

The project has also interacted with engineering projects from the UK Atomic Energy Agency and National Physical Laboratories (NPL) by sharing scan data and experiences to aid in the understanding of how the geometric fidelity of 3D surface measurements can be independently validated for free form objects.

Evidence of Dissemination Activities

Details of dissemination activities can be found in the project final report and website (see bibliography and links below).

Conclusions about e-Science

Impact and benefits to the arts and humanities community and perspectives for interdisciplinary research: E-Curator employed 3D colour laser scanning, pattern recognition for data capture and analysis, and a supercomputing infrastructure for data storage and management. Some of these technologies have been applied to museum heritage material before, but no earlier project of this kind can match the technical standards and complexity of e-Curator, or level of collaboration between computer scientists and museum professionals. The project has identified a number of recursive processes and areas for further research. By developing a prototype web-client application, which provides curatorial access to large data sets, E-Curator has demonstrated that e-science has the potential of transforming museum practice and object documentation.

Further information, bibliography and links

The e-Curator project website http://www.museums.ucl.ac.uk/research/ecurator

E-Curator application prototype and demonstration versions of 3D models may be viewed online at http://data02.geospatial.ucl.ac.uk:8080/eCurator05/pages/main.jsp

E-Curator application source code is freely available under an open source GPL licence in Sourceforge at http://sourceforge.net/search/?type_of_search=soft&words=e-curator

S. MacDonald, F. Simon Millar, M. Hess, S. Robson, I. Brown, Y-H. Ong. 2008. The Final Report on the e-Curator Project, http://www.museums.ucl.ac.uk/research/ecurator/downloads.html.

I. Brown, M. Hess, S. MacDonald, F. Simon Millar, Y-H. Ong, S. Robson. 'Traceable storage and transmission of colour laser scan datasets', VSMM 2008. Digital Heritage. Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia, Limassol, Cyprus, 20-25 October 2008. Edited by A. Addison, M. Ioannides, A. Georgopulos and L. Kalisperis, Budapest: Archaeolingua, pp. 93-99.

I. Brown, M. Hess, S. MacDonald, F. Simon Millar, Y-H. Ong, S. Robson. '3D colour scans for objects assessment', EVA London 2008. Proceedings of the Electronic Imaging and the Visual Arts Conference, British Computer Society, London, 22-24 July 2008, Edited by S. Dunn, S. Keene, G. Mallen and J. Bowen, Swindon: British Computer Society, pp. 125–134.

[NN], 'Traditional subjects, new technologies', JISC Inform, 24 March 2009, http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/documents/inform24.aspx#traditionalsubjects


This case study is based on the project reports and website. It was compiled for the Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre (AHeSSC), King’s College London, by Anna Bentkowska-Kafel. Additional information kindly provided by Ian Brown, Mona Hess and Stuart Robson. Authorised for publication by Sally MacDonald. The webpage produced by Lydia Horstman.

© E-Curator Project, March 2009.

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