Laser Scanning: Bringing Together Nations to Save Connected Cultural Heritage

Terrestrial laser scanning is a tool originally developed for the plant and industrial markets that was quickly embraced by many other fields with new applications and wider adoption growing rapidly. It is not news to veterans in the LiDAR field that terrestrial and aerial scanning have become gradually adopted by unlikely allies such as cultural heritage. Yet, its utility there continues to be expounded upon, and international headlines discussing the mapping of historic sites, or even more dramatically, aerial LiDARs role in the discovery of entire lost cities, are becoming more and more regular.

Scannings international use in cultural heritage applications is not just for the headlines. Its utility in heritage is growing as a tool to bind disparate groups together, creating international partnerships with a singular purpose: the benefit of our collective, connected human history.

In April 2013 the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, announced a partnership between Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, the John Muir Birthplace Trust, the US National Park Service, and CyArk. The partnership was established with the objective of digitizing two homes of renowned naturalist and conservationist John Muir to create digital tools to tell the transatlantic story of his life.

The partnership was also very well timed. 2013 represents two international events: (1) the 175th anniversary of the birth of John Muir, and (2) Scotlands national environmental celebration, Year of Natural Scotland. Additionally, 2014 represents Scotlands Year of Homecoming, and will feature a special John Muir Festival as part of the highlighted events.

Muir, born in Dunbar, Scotland, was instrumental in the environmental protection of both Yosemite and Sierra National Parks in the U.S. and founded the U.S. grassroots environmental organization, the Sierra Club. These acts brought about his credit as one of the founders of the United States national parks system. During his married adult life, Muir lived in a Victorian mansion in Martinez, California that was originally built by his wifes father in 1881. It was from this northern California base that Muir produced many published works about the flora and fauna of the American west coast from 1890 to his death in 1914.

Image Caption: John Muirs childhood home in Dunbar, Scotland.

The transatlantic digital preservation project will bring together the four organizations experts to use terrestrial laser scanning to digitally document both Muirs childhood home in Dunbar and his adulthood home in California. The data capture for Muirs California home was conducted in early August 2013. 200 laser scan stations and thousands of digital HDR photographs recorded the exterior and full interior of the mansionmore than fifteen rooms, from basement to attic, and up into the bell tower. Photogrammetric documentation was conducted of six select artifacts chosen by the NPS conservators on site, including Muirs personal globe still found in his study.

Image Caption: Muirs Victorian mansion in Martinez, California was fully captured with 200 exterior and interior scan positions.

First Minister Salmond exclaimed, The project will help educate and inform people about how a boy from the small town of Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland crossed the Atlantic and rose to such prominence that he would be featured on a U.S. postal stamp and become known as the founder of the United States National Parks.

The data from both sites will be used as a point-in-time record for conservation and management, including the production of architectural drawings. These tools are much needed; for example, the east parlor fireplace of the California home required reconstruction after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and detailed documentation can assist in future restoration works as needed. The more day-to-day use of the data will be through public interaction with new virtual tools for education and tourism such as online virtual tours and 3D models. A mobile app and on-site touch-screen kiosks will be developed from the captured 3D data. Visitors to either site will be able learn more about the site of visitation (such as virtual interaction with artifacts), while also having the ability to virtually tour the connected transatlantic site. And both sites will be linked with related material within the CyArk website once the content is publicly released.

The digital preservation of John Muirs Scottish and Californian homes is a truly international collaboration representing not just technology transfer and technical collaboration, but a vested interest in a connected story that, through technology, can be shared with the world while creating tools for education, outreach, and conservation and management.

Can a pulsing class 3R laser really do all that? Well, maybe not on its own, but with support from our partners and heritage professionals, CyArk is helping lead a paradigm shift in cultural heritage through the benefits of this technology. You can follow, or even help advance that paradigm shift, by joining us for the CyArk 500 Challenge (