Rawcliffe brings the past alive at Mathers Museum

Hannah Rawcliffe

Hannah Rawcliffe wants to put historic artifacts in the hands of children.

Sort of.

Rawcliffe, a Ph.D. student in the School of Informatics and Computing studying virtual heritage, is using cutting-edge technology to make artifacts more accessible to a wider range of people, including school children. Using high-resolution digital photography and a sophisticated computer program, Rawcliffe can stitch together images of an object and render them in a 3D environment, creating a digital replica that is as close to the original object as is possible with today’s technology.

The technique was developed in collaboration with Professor of Informatics Bernie Frischer, one of the leading virtual archeologists in the field. Frischer was one of the first academics to use 3D computer modeling to reconstruct cultural heritage sites and has overseen a number of major modeling projects. Rawcliffe came to IU after earning a Master’s in anthropology with a focus on cultural anthropology and archeology from East Carolina University. She became interested in the virtual heritage aspect of archeology during an internship in France in which she helped create a virtual reproduction of how the city of Nantes looked in 1900.

“I needed to get more training and more technical expertise, and who would be better to work under than Bernie?” Rawcliffe says. “He’s one of the founders of the field.”

During her first semester at IU, Rawcliffe wanted to work with a museum, so she enrolled in the Introduction to Museum Practices course taught by Judy Kirk, the assistant director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures in Bloomington. Rawcliffe was asked to create a semester-long project, and she was interested in how augmented reality is used in museums and the educational outcomes. Through that project, she became interested in how it could be used in a classroom.

“The paper I wrote showed how AR increases the learning outcomes for school groups,” says Rawcliffe, who holds an undergraduate degree in history and psychology from Wesleyan College in Georgia. “The question is how can these technologies shed new light on these artifacts and help educate the public, especially children?”


At the Mathers Museum, Rawcliffe is focused on digitizing 12 artifacts from early 19th century Indiana settlers. One of her most challenging digitizations has involved a full-size Ticonderoga Wagon in the Mathers collection.

Rawcliffe’s digitization technique is straightforward but precise.

“You take an artifact, put it on a table, and start taking pictures as you move around the table,” Rawcliffe says. “The piece can’t move. How many you need depends on how big an item is and how detailed it is. Then you feed the images into programs such as Photoscan or Capturing Reality, and the program will align the photos and build a point cloud. The program builds a texture, then you need to edit it and clean it up to fill in the gaps in information.”

The result is a 3D model that can be manipulated 360 degrees on-screen and is as close to lifelike as possible. The items are perfectly preserved, the files are easily accessed from around the world, and the digital reproductions can even be 3D printed depending on their size.

Rawcliffe spent the summer with a group conducting the digitization process at the Uffizi Gallery in Italy, which houses priceless Greek and Roman sculptures. Kirk is excited that Rawcliffe can bring the lessons learned at one of the oldest and most renowned art museums in the world to the Mathers Museum.

“I love that she was in the Uffizi Gallery then came back here and was excited to work on a cowbell,” Kirk says. “I love that juxtaposition, and it shows her passion for the work. It also shows the range of cultural heritage that we need to preserve.”

Preservation is a key aspect of the project. Once an object is digitized to a 3D environment and uploaded onto a server, it is safe from the ravages of time and nature.

“It’s why the Uffizi wanted to digitize their collection—in case of earthquake, fire, terrorist attack, whatever,” Rawcliffe says. “It’s a great museum with great preservation protocols, and it’s well guarded, but you never know what’s going to happen. If you have these models, the piece may be lost, but you still have a virtual digital copy.”

It also can allow researchers and the public to access a museum’s entire collection through virtual exhibits, all while preserving the actual object.

“Typically, museums have images online with catalog information–what it is, where it’s from, etc.–but it’s rare for museums to be able to present that information in a three-dimensional model,” Kirk says. “We have 30,000 objects, so it’s not the sort of thing you would be able to do overnight, but it might be that her work with a specific, selected amount of objects would integrate into our online catalog plans.”

Frischer is impressed with the fact Rawcliffe is somewhat going against the grain when it comes to the objects she is studying.

“She really is the pioneer in virtual heritage in breaking this enormous territory of North and South America with all the archeology and culture,” Frischer said. “Everybody is interested in the elite monuments of ancient Rome and Periclean Athens, and in some ways it’s easier to be interested in things like that. But smaller, forgotten objects of people who barely left a trace behind in history is something that seems to attract her. I find that very admirable.”

Rawcliffe also hopes the project will fire the imagination of children and help them better appreciate history. She is working with a group of fourth graders at the University Elementary School in Bloomington to create an interactive lesson that will help history come alive.

“When kids have something that is interactive, they’re more likely to pay attention,” Rawcliffe says. “It also makes more neural connections in their brain, so they’re going to have a higher retention.”

There also will be a control classroom that will learn the subject matter using traditional methods. The two classes will then be tested at the end of the semester, and the results will be compared to judge whether the digital-based and group-based learning led to higher learning outcomes than the traditional method.

It’s the blending of the past with the present using futuristic technology.

“Teaching the children how to do this process is great,” Kirk says. “Everything comes full circle. The integration of history and technology is really important. It’s all about digital humanities.”

Rawcliffe, who is currently a research assistant at Mathers, envisions a future in which she can find a position at a museum or build a consulting firm to contract work to museums or cultural ministries for use in curriculum development. She also plans to tackle the challenge of digitizing textiles and jewelry, which is a process that has not been attempted before and features its own unique set of problems.

Still, the ability to expand the audience for museums is a passion Rawcliffe won’t soon give up.

“You can have someone halfway around the world looking at your collection and learning about the collection,” Rawcliffe says. “It helps a museum’s reputation. There also is the potential for more public education. Somebody might not want to take the trip to the museum, but you’re still able to educate and spread your message.”

Kirk is a bit more succinct.

“It’s great for us, it’s great for Hannah, and hopefully it will be great for the kids.”

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