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Digital artefacts: How people perceive tangible cultural heritage through different media

Final Report Summary - DIGIFACT (Digital artefacts: How people perceive tangible cultural heritage through different media.)

DIGIFACT aimed to improve our understanding of how people perceive artefacts through different media. It clarified the role of 3D technologies in the perception of archaeological artefacts, which are critical to our European heritage, and answered three specific research questions:
• How do people experience artefacts in a museum?
• How do 3D technologies help overcome problems encountered if artefacts cannot be touched in a museum?
• How can 3D replicas be used to help improve a visitor's experience of authenticity and understanding?
Although scholars recognise the value of digital models for preserving ancient material culture in contexts where artefacts and monuments are at risk of degradation or destruction due to urban development, conflicts, and/or wars, some scholars suggest that these models lack information that can only be obtained through real-world human–object interaction. This opens up a question about the significance of digital object representations in both research and education. Studies demonstrate, in fact, that we do think with objects and that interaction with things is critical when trying to make sense of their use. Tactile perception of a real-life three-dimensional object is usually an active experience involving information gathered from a variety of senses related to touch, such as texture and temperature, as well as the movement and position of the hands and fingers during identification. Touch provides an understanding of shape, size, and weight, and it is through this sense that people develop an understanding of other properties such as density – all key features for the exploration of artefacts. For example, the weight of an object can be critical for determining its function.
The past few years have seen a considerable number of projects incorporating 3D digital reproductions of artefacts in heritage and material culture studies and inside museums. Only a few have explored how people interact with these reproductions and negotiate the absence of authenticity (i.e. the absence of the real object); further, none of these studies compared people’s perceptions of the same artefacts in different media states, to see if reproductions of artefacts duplicate the cognitive feel of real objects. This comparison is essential to the definition of authenticity, since some scholars, such as Jean Baudrillard, even reject the existence of an objective reality, claiming the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality (i.e. hyper-reality), especially in technologically advanced societies.
In conclusion, today advanced technologies allow us to produce cheap and non-invasive 3D replicas of artefacts that promise to change the way we preserve and advocate for our past material culture, but do people interact with these 3D replicas the same as with the originals? We needed to verify this and understand to what extent 3D technologies influence knowledge production and acquisition in archaeology.
In order to answer the stated questions, the research collected data on how visitors experience the archaeological record in a museum through different media (tactile experience, visual examination, 3D virtual interaction, etc.). The candidate worked at the McDonald Institute, in collaboration with the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Cambridge, developing a research programme to feed into the redevelopment of the World Archaeology Gallery over the next five years (Fig. 1).
To explore how people perceive artefacts exhibited in a museum through different media, the Fellow videotaped volunteer participants (MAA visitors) while they interacted with selected artefacts through different forms of media. The Fellow then assessed how the medium (e.g. tactile experience vs interaction with 3D virtual copies) influences the way people describe and understand objects:
Condition 1: Real-life Visual– participants looked at the objects located inside a display window, which is the most common experience that people have visiting an archaeological museum.
Condition 2: 3D Virtual – participants interacted with 3D copies of objects displayed on a computer (Fig. 2).
Condition 3: 3D-printed Haptic – participants touched copies of real-life objects made using 3D printers (Fig. 3).
For this research, the Fellow selected objects that were different in terms of shape, material, function, etc., to see if these differences could affect understanding of the objects in different media states. To clarify this latter point, a characteristic like density, for instance, is more critical when studying objects such as grinding stones than for the study of ritual objects like a support for figurines linked to ritual practice.
The Fellow videotaped 500 volunteer participants. Each participant was asked to describe no more than three to five objects, so that he/she would remain focused during the video interview. The Fellow’s previous research and combined studies of speech and gestures demonstrate, in fact, that when a participant is asked to perform too many tasks (i.e. describe too many things) for an experiment, they risk losing their focus/attention, which can negatively affect the results.

The results of this research suggest that traditional museum practices, which see textual or similar provisions as necessary a priori for a valuable learning experience in a museum, can be modified, so that the physical experience with artefacts becomes the first means of engagement. Further, virtual and/or tactile manipulation of replica artefacts allows museum visitors to engage critically with ancient material culture through virtual and material manipulation and create their own narratives of the past. As a result, museum visitors become more intrigued with the stories of museum objects and more critically engaged with expert interpretations proposed a posteriori.
The scholarly impact of this study was to provide heritage specialists with an instrument to (re)think about how they collect, interpret, and communicate heritage. Advanced knowledge on how technologies affect the perception of things from the past will help these specialists to design more effective strategies for heritage management and museum displays. Such data are particularly important if we consider that 3D prints have the strong potential to enhance artefact perception for people with particular disabilities (e.g. the visually impaired), favouring integration of diversities throughout the world.