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Breathing 3D life into ancient bones at the Natural History Museum Vienna

Challenge: The museum needed a fast and easy way to quickly capture hundreds of exhibits including fossils, specimens, artifacts, and models, both on display and in storage, and turn them into lifelike 3D models to use online and to digitally preserve them.

Solution: Artec Leo, Artec Space Spider, Artec Studio, Blender, Sketchfab

Results: Using Artec Leo and Space Spider, the museum has created more than 200 breathtakingly accurate 3D replicas of favorite exhibits, sharing them online via their popular Sketchfab account. By providing insightful annotations for these 3D models, the museum’s curators have boosted engagement with visitors near and far.

Why Artec: Only the Artec handheld 3D scanners deliver the highest levels of accuracy, resolution, and texture reproduction that the museum demands for their scan-to-3D model workflow.

Vienna Giant Deer

Viola Winkler of the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHMW) scanning the giant deer with Artec Leo. Photo courtesy of Christina Rittmannsperger

Over 10,000 years ago, during the Ice Age, Ireland was a land of chilling beauty, blanketed by tundra and dotted with resilient, cold-tolerant vegetation. It was a world vastly different from that of today, a testament to the relentless march of geological time. Within this icy expanse roamed a truly remarkable creature – the giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus), also known as the Irish elk.

This deer, unlike any deer today, was a titan among animals, standing about 2 meters tall at the shoulder and bearing antlers with a span of over 3 meters. Its massive size, towering above the tundra’s sparse foliage, was a breathtaking sight, an embodiment of life’s tenacity amid the frosty vastness of Ice Age Ireland.

Amid the frightful winds and under the weak, pale sunlight, the giant deer faced numerous threats – from the harsh climate to predators such as Ice Age wolves and bears. It fought for its survival, as well as that of its young, braving the elements, eluding predators, and wading through icy marshes.

The annotated 3D model of the giant deer, created from Artec Leo scans. Source: NHMW account on Sketchfab

But even a powerful giant deer could not escape fate’s ultimate claim. Likely mired in an unforgiving peat bog, a common peril in Ice Age Ireland, the deer undoubtedly struggled before meeting its demise. Its formidable body became submerged and preserved in the peat, waiting silently down through the millennia for the moment of its rediscovery.

Resurrection from the peat bog

That silence was broken in 1860 when the deer’s remains were unearthed from their peat tomb, an event the scientific world did not fail to notice. The remarkably well-preserved skeleton of the deer served as a time capsule, providing invaluable insights into the life and environment of Ice Age Ireland.

After its discovery, the giant deer’s remains embarked on a journey, eventually finding a new home in the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHMW). More than a century and a half later, among a treasure trove of historical artifacts, the task of preserving and showcasing this majestic creature’s fascinating skeleton became a focus.

Vienna Giant Deer

Gazing along the spine towards the neck of the annotated 3D model of the giant deer on Sketchfab. Image courtesy of NHMW

However, presenting this prehistoric marvel to a broad audience, while ensuring its long-term preservation, carried with it a unique set of challenges. This delicate balancing act demanded a solution that combined the latest 3D scanning technology with scientific precision and non-contact, non-destructive functionality.

“Photogrammetry, though valuable, was a less than ideal choice for our museum,” said Viola Winkler, operator of the 3D lab at the NHMW. “Extended photo sessions required for this method and slow processing times were some of our major concerns. We were looking for a solution that would not only improve accuracy and efficiency but also help us engage better with our audience.”

Vienna Giant Deer

Viola Winkler scanning the inside of the giant deer’s ribcage with Artec Leo. Photo courtesy of Christina Rittmannsperger

Reimagining museum exhibits with Artec Leo

Enter Artec Leo, a state-of-the-art 3D scanner, which has since transformed the museum’s approach to documentation, object preservation, and virtual exhibition. Winkler, along with Anna Haider, another visualization expert at the NHMW, are revolutionizing the museum’s exhibits with Artec Leo. This cutting-edge 3D scanner serves as a remarkable tool, capturing intricate details and the lifelike textures of the museum’s invaluable artifacts, with unprecedented accuracy and speed.

“The Artec Leo scanner changed our approach to object preservation and creating 3D versions of our collections. Its speed, accuracy, and ease of use have significantly enhanced our workflow. We’re happy to have an alternative to lengthy photogrammetry sessions,” said Haider.

Vienna Giant Deer

Using Leo’s rear touchscreen to review the scans of the giant deer in real time. Photo courtesy of Christina Rittmannsperger

The NHMW also uses Artec Space Spider, an ultra-high-resolution handheld 3D scanner that’s ideally suited for capturing the smallest, most intricate details of fossils and a broad variety of other objects.

From scans to interactive 3D models

Once the Artec Leo or Space Spider has scanned the fossil or other object, it must then be turned into a comprehensive 3D polygonal mesh that represents the object’s surface, with a level of accuracy well into the realm of the submillimeter.

Vienna Giant Deer

Artec Studio screenshot showing pre-alignment of Leo scans of the giant deer. Image courtesy of NHMW

Artec Studio software is a key player in this transformation process. Winkler and Haider take the raw data captured by the Artec scanner and import it into Artec Studio. Here, the resulting 3D mesh can be transformed into 3D models of various formats.

Vienna Giant Deer

Artec Studio screenshot showing Leo scans of the giant deer clicking into place during alignment. Image courtesy of NHMW

They usually export their 3D scans as OBJ files, with the textures as PNG, while for some web applications, they use the GLB format, compatible with Blender. “The seamless integration between Artec Studio and Blender, among other applications, facilitates a smooth and efficient workflow for creating lifelike 3D models,” said Haider.

Vienna Giant Deer

Viola Winkler and Anna Haider reviewing 3D scans on Leo’s touchscreen. Image courtesy of Christina Rittmannsperger

Part of the appeal of the Artec Leo is its ability to create 3D models for an interactive platform that museum visitors can explore in ways not possible within the museum’s physical confines. This has opened up a new world of discovery, education, and appreciation, especially during pandemic times when physical visits were challenging or even impossible.

“The interactive 3D models we’ve created using Artec Leo and those with Space Spider, too, are popular with everyone,” said Winkler.

Vienna Giant Deer

The annotated 3D model of the giant deer on Sketchfab, created from Artec Leo scans. Image courtesy of NHMW

She continued, saying, “Now, whether someone is in Vienna, or thousands of kilometers away, they can explore our collections in depth, oftentimes, even from different perspectives than they could by visiting the museum and seeing the exhibits in person. We are also able to showcase specimens from our collections that are not part of the public exhibition.”

Sharing the treasures of the Natural History Museum Vienna with the world

The Natural History Museum Vienna shares their 3D models online with visitors around the world via their Sketchfab account. This platform now features more than 200 extremely lifelike, insightfully annotated 3D models of some of the museum’s most popular and unforgettable exhibits. Most of the available 3D models are also free to download.

Some of the most well-loved of these include the terror-bird (Paraphysornis brasiliensis), Franz Viehböck’s Sokol space suit, Japanese giant spider crabs (Macrocheira kaempferi), and even the NHMW cookie plate, a collection of eight unique 3D models transformed into downloadable 3D-printable cookie cutters, available for virtual exploration. This global accessibility truly democratizes the museum experience for visitors near and far.

Vienna Giant Deer

The annotated 3D model of the terror-bird on Sketchfab, created from Artec Leo scans. Image courtesy of NHMW

Beyond the giant deer

Expanding past the fascinating skeleton of the giant deer, the NHMW has used Artec Leo to document and create 3D models of a range of other remarkable creatures. These include a southern elephant seal (Mirounga leoninae) from the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean; a giant marine turtle (Archelon ischyros) from the prehistoric tropical sea that once blanketed North America; and a rare blue antelope (Hippotragus leucophaeus), one of the most popular and famous exhibits within the museum’s collection.

Winkler couldn’t hide her amazement at the precision and detail of the Artec Leo, saying, “Even after using it for so long, I’m continually in awe at how Leo captures even the tiniest details of our fossils and other exhibits. Looking at the 3D model of our southern elephant seal or the ancient marine turtle, you can see the individual textures and subtle variations that make each object unique.”

Vienna Giant Deer

The annotated 3D model of the blue antelope on Sketchfab, created from Artec Leo scans. Image courtesy of NHMW

She continued, “And the scan of our blue antelope – it’s almost as if you’re standing right there in front of the real thing, examining its intricate features up close. Artec Leo has truly brought our collections to life like never before.”

Monitoring and preservation for future generations

Beyond public engagement, the NHMW team has found a robust solution for digital preservation in the Artec Leo and Space Spider. The high-precision 3D scans serve as an important resource in monitoring minute changes to the artifacts. Even alterations smaller than a millimeter can be tracked over time.

Vienna Giant Deer

The annotated 3D model of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull, created from Artec Leo scans. Image courtesy of NHMW

“The ability to detect even the slightest surface changes in the objects and intervene when necessary is a major win for us. This will allow us to see if any concerning structural issues are taking place, and confidently preserve these precious objects for many years to follow,” explained Haider.

Occasionally the team uses Blender, which allows them to add even more artistic and realistic textures to the 3D models, particularly for animations, thus enhancing the viewer’s experience.

Redefining museum curation in the 21st century

With Artec Leo and Space Spider, the NHMW has found an efficient and precise solution to the dual challenges of preservation and accessibility. By revolutionizing their approach to object documentation and visitor engagement, they’re ensuring that their remarkable exhibits continue to enlighten and inspire audiences for decades and centuries to come.

As Winkler put it, “Our ancient exhibits now have a future that’s as secure and vibrant as their past.” Haider added, echoing her colleague’s sentiments, “From facilitating fascinating virtual tours to monitoring the preservation of our exhibits, our Artec scanners have truly transformed the approach we have to museum curation.”

Vienna Giant Deer

The annotated 3D model of a Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), created from Artec Leo scans. Image courtesy of NHMW

In this new era, the NHMW is stepping beyond the traditional bounds of preservation and exhibition. With Artec Leo, Space Spider, and their suite of advanced software tools, they’re redefining what it means to be a museum in the 21st century.

It’s not just about presenting the artifacts but also about sharing the impressive, richly annotated 3D models with a global audience, ensuring that these rare historical artifacts continue to inspire curiosity and awe, irrespective of geographical boundaries.

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