This blog by Carla Schroer, Director at Cultural Heritage Imaging, was first posted on the blog site, Center for the Future of Museums, founded by Elizabeth Merritt as an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums.
My organization, Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI), has been involved in the development of open source software for over a decade. We also use open source software developed by others, as well as commercial software.
What drove us to make our work open for other people to use and adapt?
We are a small, independent nonprofit with a mission to advance the state of the art of digital capture and documentation of the world’s cultural, historic, and artistic treasures. Development of technology is only one piece of our work–we are involved in many aspects of scientific imaging, including developing methodology, training museum and heritage professionals, and engaging in imaging projects and research. Because we are small, and because the best ideas and most interesting breakthroughs can happen anywhere, we collaborate with others who share our interests and who have expertise in using digital cameras to collect empirical data about the real world.
Our choice to use an open source license with the technology that is produced in this kind of collaboration serves both the organizations involved in its development and the adopters of the software. By agreeing to an open source license, the people and institutions that contribute to the software development are assured that the software will be available and that they and others can use it and modify it now and in the future. It also keeps things fair among the collaborators, ensuring that no one group exploits the joint work.
How does open source benefit its users?
It’s beneficial not just because the software is free. There is a lot of free software that is distributed only in the “executable” version without making the source code available to others to use and modify. One advantage to users who care about the longevity of their data − and, in our case, images and the results of image processing − is that the processes being applied to the images are transparent. People can figure out what is being done by looking at the source code. Also, making the source code available increases the likelihood that software to do the same kind of processing will be available in the future. It isn’t a guarantee, but it increases the chances for long-term reuse. Finally, open source benefits the community of people all working in a particular area, because other researchers, students, and community members can add features, fix errors, and customize for special uses. With a “copyleft” license, like the Gnu General Public License that we use, all modifications and additions to the software have to be released under this same license. This ensures that when others build on the software, their modifications and additions will be “open” as well, so that the whole community benefits. (This is a generalization of the terms; read more if you want to understand the details of a particular license.)
Open source is a licensing model for software, nothing more. The fact that it is “open” tells you nothing about the quality of the software, whether it will meet your needs, whether anyone is still working on it, how difficult or easy to learn and use it is, and many other questions you should think about when choosing technology. The initial cost of software is only one consideration in adopting a technology strategy. For example, what will it cost to switch to another solution, if this one no longer does what you need? Will you be left with a lot of files in a proprietary format that other software can’t open or use?
That leads me to remark on a related issue– open file formats. Whether you choose to use commercial software or open source software, you should think about how your data and resulting files will be stored and used. Almost always, you should choose open formats (like JPEG, PDF, and TIFF) because that means that any software or application is allowed to read and write to the format, which protects the reuse of the data in the long term. Proprietary formats (like camera RAW files and Adobe PSD files) may not be usable in the future. The Library of Congress Sustainability of Digital Formats web site has great information about this topic.
At Cultural Heritage Imaging, we use an open source model for development of imaging software because it helps foster collaboration. It also provides transparency as well as a higher likelihood that the technology and resulting files will be usable in the future. If you want to learn more about our approach to the longevity and reuse of imaging data, read about the Digital Lab Notebook.
Filed under: Commentary, Guest Blogger | Tags: Digital Imaging, Digital Preservation, Preservation, threats to heritage, world history
Our guest blogger, Matt Hinson, is a junior at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He spent the summer as an intern at CHI. Thanks, Matt!
During my summer internship at Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI), I learned a great deal about the danger facing many of the world’s treasures as well as the efforts to save them. My background in international history leads me to believe that international law and policy can help to address many of the dangers. I have also learned how CHI is contributing to the revolution in how we interact with information and deal with these cultural heritage threats.
The variety of projects that CHI undertakes demonstrates the wide range of threats facing cultural heritage. Although some of CHI’s most recent projects have dealt with weathering and natural deterioration, it is important to understand the other risks to humanity’s greatest treasures. One can categorize tangible cultural heritage sites into natural formations, historic structures, including cities and sculptures, and inscriptions. Complex rock formations, the cities built by ancient cultures, works of art, and monuments are all included. It is also important to recognize cultural heritage sites that hold symbolic value to a specific community or group. Many of these are protected by national parks and museums, but only to a certain extent. Multiple forces continue to threaten this material.
Threats can be divided into man-made and natural. The man-made category encompasses destruction from conflict, construction, and development. Human neglect can also be included as a potential danger to the survival of important sites. War has become one of the most widely observed man-made threats to cultural heritage, particularly in ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Groups fighting for ideological reasons, such as religious fundamentalists, have attempted to destroy artifacts that contradict their beliefs. The recent destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud by the Islamic State is one prominent example. Conflict areas tend to encourage looting of historic sites, leading to sales of antiquities on the black market. Often the lure of financial gain from the development of sites that contain important heritage outweighs the cultural value that is at risk. One example is the impending destruction of an ancient Turkish cave city after the completion of a dam that will put it under water.
In most parts of the world, environmental threats to cultural heritage are more prevalent than man-made ones. For monuments, statues, and other structures made of stone, weathering is a common means of loss. Precipitation, especially acid rain, and other kinds of exposure to water can lead to the gradual erosion of stone, rotting of wood, and general deterioration of sites and monuments.
Environmental damage caused by climate change is accelerating the destruction. Rising sea levels are predicted to have a particularly devastating impact on many cultural sites. A recent study shows that predicted sea level rise over the next years will put 80% of Icelandic cultural sites at risk. According to the National Park Service (NPS), natural heritage sites in the US are also at risk. The NPS reports 105 parks as “vulnerable to sea level rise.” The effect on weather patterns due to climate change, particularly the increase in severe weather events, could pose major threats to cultural heritage sites beyond normal historical weathering.
How can these various threats be addressed? Archaeological preservation is one common method of physically excavating and preserving important historical artifacts. Moving objects to museums has successfully preserved different forms of cultural heritage throughout time. Digital imaging, practiced here at CHI, is a powerful tool to be used alongside archaeological methods to provide additional, more detailed information for the historical record. Digital representations of cultural heritage sites can be used to monitor the rates of change at these sites as well as preserve their shape and cultural significance. The re-creation of cultural heritage with digital methods also impacts how information is shared: an artifact that may be thousands of miles away can be viewed by anyone anywhere in an accurate digital form. This also allows objects and sites to stay in their original locations while providing access to their digital representations.
From my perspective, a crucial element in furthering the protection of cultural heritage is the legal and political protection of these sites. International law has developed to protect the things that have been identified as most sacred to communities around the world, including human dignity, life, and freedoms. Cultural heritage must be worthy of the same kind of protection every day as well as in wartime. Although some institutions already exist to defend cultural heritage, UNESCO, for example, I believe we must govern the protection of artifacts and sites with laws just as we do in cases of war crimes and sovereignty.
Another lesson I take away from my time at CHI concerns the changes in our interactions with information and knowledge. I am familiar with the usual media in our repositories of knowledge: text, photographs, video, and audio. While these media convey interpretations and descriptions of their subject matter, they rarely can stand as accurate representations of sites and objects. The potential that three-dimensional imaging brings to human interaction with information can be enormous. Many historical and cultural wonders previously limited to a particular geographical area could be made accessible to others, leading to progress in historical and interpretive research. Expanding research on these 3D methods, such as the ongoing work at CHI, can lead to highly effective ways of contributing to this revolution in information.
CHI has exposed me to a lot of these problems facing world heritage sites but has also introduced me to the preservation and information successes that are possible with different methods and technologies.
Filed under: Commentary, Guest Blogger, Lighting, On Location, Technology | Tags: capture, guest blogger, medieval, mosaic, Preservation, PTM, Reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), tesserae
Our guest blogger is Heidrun Feldmann, a PhD student in History of Art at the University of Basel and an assistant on the research project “Digital Materiality” at the Digital Humanities Lab there. Thank you, Heidrun!
It is obvious that art historians need good reproductions of works of art to do their research. However, photographic images, which are static and two-dimensional, are not capable of reproducing the visual impression we have when we look at mosaics. Their specific materiality and surface properties make a visualization of these characteristics difficult. Besides, as ancient or medieval mosaics are usually placed on the walls of churches, they interact with those specific surroundings. The lighting conditions inside these buildings, as well as the optical impressions for a visitor moving across the room, change dynamically, which results in a unique sensory experience. This is also a reason why the designs of mosaics in such religious contexts were often attuned to the liturgy. The impressive sparkling effect is caused by the surface properties of the countless tesserae, which – when animated by light − shimmer in many different colours and shine like precious metals. Sometimes those tesserae were placed in the setting bed with a certain tilt angle. This might seem irregular to us today, but then it was done intentionally to optimize the reflectivity of the surface.
With the aid of RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging), we now have more options for capturing and simulating the reflection properties of a mosaic’s surface, as well as its interaction with changing light conditions. The RTIViewer software enables us to convey the impressions of this highly dynamic medium to people who cannot visit the actual mosaic in situ. RTIs also help us document the current condition of mosaics more accurately than in the past, and they support our goal to answer questions about how light was used in medieval architecture.
To test the RTI method, we visited the Bode-Museum in Berlin, where a mosaic, originating from the church of San Michele in Africisco, Ravenna, is exhibited as part of the Early Christian and Byzantine Collection (Figure 1). We thank Gabriele Mietke, curator of the department, for allowing us to take our photos. The mosaic is fitted into the architecture of the museum, where an apse was constructed to imitate the original place of its installation in the church in Ravenna, albeit without the original lighting situation.
Scholars have extensively debated the condition and state of preservation of this mosaic. Without going into all the details, we can say it is certain that the mosaic we see in the museum differs from the original of 545 AD because of its turbulent history. It has been restored and changed more than once, and some critics say that the whole mosaic is merely a copy. For us this was particularly interesting. We were wondering if the RTIs would provide further information regarding interventions, changes, or repairs.
Because of its size and form, it was impossible to take pictures that cover the whole of the apse. Therefore we captured it in twelve segments. About sixty photographs were taken of each of these segments, changing the position of the flashlight by hand for every picture. The twelve RTI files we obtained in this way show the reflection properties much better than any static photograph could do.
There are some limitations with glossy surfaces, because specular reflection cannot be adequately represented with the typical mathematical model used in Polynomial Texture Maps (the first form of RTI). However, changing the angle of the incoming light in the RTIViewer software allows us to identify areas whose structure and reflection properties differ from the others. In those areas the tesserae are of a different size or form and seem to be set in another way. All this suggests that these are the areas where the mosaic has undergone some kind of repair or restoration (Figures 2 and 3).
Having successfully tested the technique under the special conditions in the museum, we are now looking forward to the next step: capturing RTIs of medieval mosaics in situ and working on enhanced models for the visualization of gloss.
To find out more about our research project, see http://www.dhlab.unibas.ch.
Filed under: Commentary, Guest Blogger, News, On Location, Technology | Tags: ancient footprints, photogrammetry, Preservation
Sarah Duffy, PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of York in the Department of Archaeology. In May of 2013, after a series of storms, ancient footprints were revealed on a beach near Happisburgh (pronounced “Hays-boro”) on Britain’s east coast in Norfolk (see a 6-minute video). The footprints were fragile and washing away a little day by day. Sarah was called to the site by Dr. Nick Ashton, Curator of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic collections at the British Museum, to document it. Here is our interview with Sarah about this dramatic discovery.
CHI: Sarah, can you tell us how you got involved in the project and what you found when you arrived?
Sarah: It really came down to good timing and an opportune meeting of research colleagues. When the footprints were discovered, I had just begun working with Dr. Beccy Scott at the British Museum on a project based in Jersey called “Ice Age Island”. Beccy and my partner, Dr. Ed Blinkhorn, another early prehistoric archaeologist, have collaborated for many years, and he introduced us. During the week of the discovery, Beccy happened to be at a research meeting with Dr. Nick Ashton and suggested that he get in touch with me about the Happisburgh finding.
The next day, I received a call from Nick who asked if I would be able to take a trip to Norfolk to record some intertidal Pleistocene deposits at Happisburgh. Having just completed my PhD thesis (a “dissertation” in US currency), I was up for an adventure and ready to take on the challenge, and so I was on a train to the southeast coast two days later.
My first plan of action was to figure out how on earth you pronounced the name of the site! The next step was to figure out what equipment I would need to have available when I arrived. This proved somewhat challenging, as I had never visited the Norfolk coast, and it seems quite humorous in hindsight that one of the pieces of kit I requested was a ladder.
All of this said, the urgency to get the site photographed became clear when I showed up one very rainy afternoon in March. Standing on the shore, I felt very privileged to have been invited to record such an important set of features, which disappeared within only weeks of their discovery by Dr. Martin Bates.
CHI: What were your goals in the project and why did you choose to shoot images for photogrammetry? Can you tell us a little bit about your approach?
Sarah: Since I wasn’t sure what to expect when I reached the site, I took both photogrammetric and RTI kit materials with me. I intended to capture the 3D geometry of the prints with photogrammetry and subtle surface relief with RTI. However, when I arrived, both the weather and tidal restrictions limited the time we were able dedicate to recording. I therefore focused my efforts on photogrammetry, which proved a flexible and robust enough technique that we were able to get the kit down the cliff side in extremely challenging conditions and capture images that were used later to generate 3D models.
Based on the looming return of the tide and the amount of time required to prepare the site, our window of access was quite small. While I took the images, aided by Craig Williams and an umbrella, the rest of the team battled the rain and tide by carefully sponging water from the base of the features. As mentioned, I originally intended to capture images from above the site using a ladder. However, as the ladder immediately sank into the wet sand, I was forced to find other means of overhead capture: namely Live View, an outstretched arm, and umbrella. There was just enough time to photograph the prints, loosely divided into two sections, using this recording approach before we had to retreat back up to the top of the cliff (and to a very warm pub for a much deserved fireside pint!).
CHI: When you got back to your office, how long did it take you to process the images, and what software did you use?
Sarah: Originally, I used the Standard Edition of PhotoScan by Agisoft, later returning to the image set in order to reprocess it with their Professional Edition. PhotoScan’s processing workflow is relatively straightforward, and the time required to generate geometry is somewhat dependent on the hardware one has access to. The post-processing of the images was by far the most time-consuming component of the processing sequence. Since the software looks for patterns of features, there was a substantial amount of image preparation that needed to be completed first, before models could be produced. For example, rain droplets on the laminated surface that contained the prints needed to be masked out, as well as the contemporary boot prints that accumulated in the sand that surrounded the site throughout the image sequence.
CHI: How were the 3D models you produced used by the other archaeologists involved with the site?
Sarah: Once the models had been generated, the rest of the team, including Nick Ashton, Simon Lewis, Isabelle De Groote, Martin Bates, Richard Bates, Peter Hoare, Mark Lewis, Simon Parfitt, Sylvia Peglar, Craig Williams, and Chris Stringer, wrote the paper on the results. Nick Ashton and Isabelle De Groote closely analyzed the models of the prints in order to study size, movement, direction, and possible age of the early humans who might have created these features. Isabelle later worked with the 3D printing department at Liverpool John Moores University in order to have one of the digital models printed.
CHI: Since the footprints were washed away, your images are the best record of the site that exists. Are the 3D models accessible? What will you do to preserve this material?
Sarah: Coverage of the footprints, including excerpts of the digital models that I generated and the 3D printout, can be viewed at the Natural History Museum exhibit in London, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, which closes September 28th. Findings from the analysis have also been published in PLOS ONE, an open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal.
As mentioned, when I visited the site last March, I had hoped to undertake a RTI survey. Although conditions on the day of recording did not permit multi-light capture, I have since been able to generate virtual RTI models that reveal the subtle topography of the prints. An excerpt of one of these models can be viewed on my website.
Additionally, the research team, in collaboration with the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease at Liverpool, are currently working on extracting further information from the image set. Findings from this work will be made available in the future. Once analysis is complete, the images and resulting models will be archived with the British Museum.
CHI: Thank you for your time, Sarah, and what a great story!
Sarah Duffy has been collaborating with Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI), including taking CHI’s training in Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and working with the technique since 2007 while she was a graduate student in Historic Preservation at the University of Texas at Austin. Sarah authored a set of guidelines for English Heritage on RTI. During her doctoral work, she also began to apply her imaging skills in the area of photogrammetry.
We often get asked why we set up CHI as a nonprofit. I can understand the question, because we are doing some pretty high-tech projects, and we work with a number of famous institutions whose names people recognize, perhaps making us seem grander and better endowed than we really are.
My background is in computer science, and I worked in software product development for years. At some point I had decided I wanted to apply my skills to “make the world a better place.”
Mark had similar leanings. His background was in philosophy and studio arts, primarily sculpture. He began looking into 3D modeling and laser scanning in the late ’80s, and by the mid-1990s he was teaching the subject. I had a minor in sculpture and ceramics. We both loved history, art, and archaeology. We had met in 1983 and married in 1989. By the late ‘90s, digital cameras were coming into play, and structured light scanning technology was becoming available for 3D capture.
Mark and I got fired up. We started seeking out people who worked in archaeology or museums to better understand their needs. Our first questions were: What did they wish to do that they couldn’t do in the field? Could the emerging imaging technologies help them in research and creating access to more cultural material?
Over time, and as we learned more, the seeds of CHI took root in us. By 2002 we began to imagine how existing and emerging technologies could be used to create robust, powerful, low-cost tools to document cultural heritage objects and collections. And so we formed Cultural Heritage Imaging.
Today, well over 10 years after we started our nonprofit, we remain committed to fostering the improvement, availability and adoption of these documentary tools. We see them as “democratizing technology,” because our vision is founded on making cultural and natural science techniques and materials available to people all over the world.
Many of our collaborations are only possible because we are a nonprofit. “Pulling on the same oar” for humanity’s benefit is a powerful reward. Our nonprofit status is attractive to top researchers and organizations who are drawn to work on and contribute to saving history. These experts are sometimes willing to help for very little money, and occasionally they even raise their own grant funding. Our open source approach is inclusive and allows others to add new features to the tools, moving the whole community forward.
The downside of this commitment to openness is there is a constant need to raise money, and much of the money we get is earmarked for specific purposes. It’s great to get funding for a project we want to do, like the National Endowment for the Humanities Start-up grant we recently received. However, many of the requirements of running the organization and fostering community growth are not covered by the grant funds.
Funding is critical! We get a lot of volunteer support, we work with students and professors, we get discount rates from many professionals. We are extremely grateful for this help and it makes an enormous difference. At the end of the day, we rely on the good graces of our donors to keep us, and the community, going.
I have had the good fortune to attend a few recent events that allowed me to see some really useful work other folks are doing in our field. I thought it worth a blog post to mention a few with some links. I’ll note that I have seen even more cool stuff, but if there wasn’t a paper or a page I could link to, I decided not to include it here.
First, Mark Mudge and I were at Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) in late April in Paris. Yes, I know, it is a hard-knock life having to present your work in Paris in April. I always love CAA because it is a great conference for sharing information and real-life experiences. People are super helpful, and everyone wants to see everyone else succeed. This isn’t the norm for a lot of conferences.
I want to point out 2 projects from there. The first is Eleni Kotoula’s RTI on Papyrus case study. New here is Eleni’s use of multispectral imaging and also her experiment with transmitted RTI. Eleni was interested in information for conservation about the state of this papyrus, which is mounted on cloth and under glass. The second project at CAA isn’t an RTI project, but it’s very cool and worth mentioning anyway. It is the work of Adam Rabinowitz et al. on PeriodO. As folks who follow our efforts know, we at CHI are big fans of metadata, process-history tracking, and related topics. Figuring out how to talk about periods in archaeology and art is really hard, and Adam and team have an idea for an interesting approach. This project recently won National Endowment for the Humanities support, so it will be able to go forward. You can and should contribute to this effort yourself!
Next up is the American Institute for Artistic and Historic Works (AIC) conference, which took place at the end of May, right here in San Francisco. It was great for us to have so many folks we have worked with here in SF. One of the things I noticed at this conference was that Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) showed up in a number of talks, though that wasn’t the focus of the talk. RTI is another tool to look at objects people are studying, and RTIs are being shown right alongside IR images and X-rays and the like. YAY! My takeaway is that RTI is an accepted part of the practice for art conservators. We are super happy to see that.
Finally, I was able to attend a 3-day workshop on RTI current practice and future directions, hosted by the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus in early June. This was “All RTI, All the Time!” and it was very productive to be part of a dedicated meeting like this. There were many noteworthy projects presented there, and I’ll point out a few. Up first, the work of Todd Hanneken and others integrating spectral imaging and RTI. While many of us have done spectral imaging and RTI going back several years, what is new here is the use of a MegaVision monochrome camera system, and taking 11 spectral bands. RTI was shot in the visible and used for luminance data to generate the RTIs, and the color data collected via the spectral bands was then applied to the images shot in visible light. The team also tested shooting full RTIs in each spectral band for comparison. In addition, work from the Visual Computing Lab in Pisa for a WebGL-based RTI viewer, released in January of this year, was discussed. At the moment, this work is limited to streaming large RTI files and then allowing the user to pan, zoom, and relight, but some possible future directions were outlined. It is open source, so you can try it out yourself. There is also a project at The University of Southampton to develop a web-based RTI viewer, and we received an update on that project, but I don’t have a link where I can send you just yet.
As part of the discussion on where RTI is going, there was a lot of interest in quantitative uses of RGB and normals data. There are a variety of people working in this area, though they didn’t present directly at any of these meetings. Several of these folks are working with us at CHI, and we are very excited by this direction. First up, the work of Dale Kronkright, Greg Bearman, and several others to look at tracking changes through normals, and also to quantify normal calibration. You can find both papers here. Additionally, there is great work going on at Simon Fraser University under Professor Mark Drew to improve the accuracy of surface normals calculated from RTI data sets. They are also working on improving the appearance of RTI data in the viewing environment. There are a number of papers on this topic, most recently the masters thesis of Mingjing Zhang.
It is an exciting time to be working with RTI data! There is much more work going on than I could include here, and more that hasn’t been published yet. I want to close with a plug for the CHIForums where many topics like this are discussed, and there is a Projects Forum where folks can put up links to their work, as well as get comments and feedback.
Filed under: Commentary, News | Tags: Anna Ressman, cultural heritage imaging, Digital Imaging, Oriental Institute Museum, Reflectance Transformation Imaging, RTI, Technology, University of Chicago, visualization
Recently Anna R. Ressman, Head of Photography at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, shared a compelling article with me, and now I’m sharing it with you.
Here is a link to the Oriental Institute newsletter (PDF), which contains the article entitled, “Behind the Scenes: Museum Photography at the Oriental Institute.”
Anna describes the process in which five very different artifacts are documented, each with a unique challenge. And yes, you guessed it, one of those artifacts was documented using the RTI highlight method.
Documentation of the Egyptian stele “was photographed with a method of computational photography called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI).”
Anna concludes the section on RTI with these insights: “RTI files can be created in such a manner that pixel data is analyzed to show specular information rather than color data, which can reveal more information about the surface of the object than color data alone (figs. 3–4). As you can see, the inscriptions on the stele are much clearer in the specular-enhancement PTM image (fig. 3), even though the studio photograph (fig. 4) was taken using a macro lens under controlled studio lighting. The former may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the latter, but it reveals much more information than would normally be seen — and that is just a single image out of a series of forty-five.”
Be sure to download the complete article and check out the rest of the newsletter as well.
Anna R. Ressman is Head of Photography at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, USA. Anna is also a freelance photographer and a fine artist.
[Photos by Anna R. Ressman/Courtesy Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago]