3D museums that never close

The Science Museum has created a time machine. For 49 years, its largest exhibition was the shipping galleries: a huge maritime display in a unique space designed to look like an ocean liner.

While the exhibition is no more – the 1,800 objects are now in storage – it can still be strolled through in its entirety, thanks to a bold decision to scan the entire collection in 3D.

With the two-billion-point data cloud not yet available for viewing by the public, the museum has released a video of the 3D model that flies through the ghost-like ships and displays.

The museum’s transport curator, David Rooney, calls it a “time machine” – a step into the past of the shipping galleries, and a look forward to the future of museums.

Shipping out

Opened in 1963, the shipping galleries were on display for almost five decades, which is a long time in the evolution of any museum, let alone one dedicated to the fast-moving world of science and technology.

“The rather terrifying statistic is that only 5% of the Science Museum’s collection is on show – 95% is in storage,” Rooney says. “Part of the job of the museum is to pull items out of storage and tell new stories, but obviously the consequence of that is old galleries have to come to an end. [The shipping galleries] were exceptionally popular, but it was time for some new stories.”

The gallery has been packed up to make way for a new exhibition – Information Age, due to open next year – but before the intricate models of ships and unique displays were shuffled into storage, they were archived. “We always document galleries when we take them off display – we photograph them,” says Rooney.

This time, however, a new technology offered an intriguing alternative. London-based ScanLAB Projects uses lasers to take 3D scans of large objects, such as icebergs for Greenpeace, as well as spaces such as theatres. The latter is key for a museum: how exhibits are organised is as important as what’s on display.

Rooney says the shipping galleries were particularly special, calling them a “remarkable design for the 1960s”, created to resemble an ocean liner with a promenade deck.

Science Museum Shipping Galleries 3D Scan

“It’s hard to represent that in still photographs. We could have used video, but there was something about the capability to ‘fly’ through the gallery that we felt might be quite compelling.”

Five nights in the dark

To capture the gallery in its entirety, ScanLAB set up a pair of Faro Photon 120 terrestrial laser scanners, capturing 275 full, 360-degree scans. The lasers are the same as those used by surveyors, says Will Trossell, ScanLAB’s co-founder. “It’s an infrared laser that sends a signal out to its surroundings. The return signal acts like sonar or radar.”

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