Blending Art and Technology

Blending Art and Technology

An internship with the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) helped Will McCormick ’23 draw connections between his seemingly disparate majors and influenced both his artistic practice and his next steps after college.

An art history and studio art, Japanese and mathematics major, McCormick worked closely with Beth Fischer, the museum’s assistant curator of digital learning and research, exploring techniques for digitizing and 3D-modeling objects in WCMA’s collection. He used photogrammetry—a process that knits together 160 to 300 overlapping images along with surface data and measurements—to develop a model of a bust of Abraham Lincoln. WCMA plans to 3D-print the model to display alongside a life mask from the Smithsonian Institution as part of an upcoming exhibition.

“Beth and I had to figure out the aspects of the object we needed to capture,” McCormick says. “We were zooming in to make sure we captured small curls of his hair and the nostrils of the bust.”

He also used photogrammetry for his senior thesis and final project, on view at WCMA through June 4 as part of “Indoor Recess.” The exhibition celebrates the culminating projects of this year’s 14 senior studio art majors.

McCormick explored the use of digital technology as an alternative to traditional funerary art and commemoration methods. Using photogrammetry—the art and science of extracting 3D information from photographs—he captured images of his grandmother’s kimono fabrics and the façade of her house. Then he experimented with deleting photos and data, “akin to a chiseler scraping at a bust,” he says, to create a more abstract model that represented his memories and feelings.

For his senior math colloquium, McCormick studied how museums are using digital techniques to make their collections more interactive online. He plans to teach math at Buxton School, a college-preparatory school in Williamstown, and says he now has examples to help his students understand the value of math in any discipline.

“Even at Williams, where we have so many programs to find these interdisciplinary spaces, it’s hard to discover your niche and figure out how to pursue it,” McCormick says. “It’s been interesting to learn photogrammetry and RTI and have these techniques that unlock new pathways for me within my personal art practice.”

Using and blending technologies such as RTI—reflective transformation imagery—photogrammetry and 3D printing, WCMA is increasing access to and understanding of its collection.

Fischer came to WCMA in 2019 as a postdoctoral fellow and part of a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. WCMA had already photographed its 15,000-object collection, and Fischer was charged with exploring other methods of digitization.

While two-dimensional images work well enough for paintings and photographs, they don’t allow users to explore three-dimensional objects from all angles. That’s where the other technologies come in.

WCMA has created about 40 digital models using photogrammetry. Fischer prioritizes objects requested for use in a class but also looks for those that are under-recognized and could benefit from additional research.

“Students might want to look at an object in our collection, but it’s fragile, or it isn’t something they can tip over and pick up,” she says. “Even when they view an object in person, their body can block the light and make it difficult to see. With the 3D model, they can zoom in as closely as they want.”

As one example, students taking Living Masks, a theater class about the spiritual and theatrical use of masks, wanted to study the African masks in WCMA’s collection. They wondered if it would fit on a person’s head, how someone might move while wearing it and what they could see through the mask’s openings. Trying one on would be disrespectful to its significance, and the masks were too fragile to hold anyway.

So, Fischer created a 3D digital model that could be placed on a virtual model of a human head.

When students need to hold a physical object, 3D printing offers another alternative. In this case, Fischer partners with the Makerspace, a student-run fabrication and experimentation center in Sawyer Library. She trains student staff on photogrammetry and the Makerspace provides 3D printing for WCMA.

Leah Williams ’25, a rising junior, has been working with Makerspace since 2021. She printed a 3D model of a whistle using similar materials to the original object. Students can handle the whistle and hear a close approximation of its sound. Williams is also partnering with Fischer on a 3D-printed mold of a Roman-era date flask that will be used to make a glass replica. The original is often studied in classics courses and the Winter Study glassblowing class, but it’s too fragile for students to handle.

“As a computer science major,” Williams says, “the Makerspace is a good place to explore 3D printing techniques and build that skillset.”

Fischer notes that students of any discipline need experience constructing and using digital models, as those tools become the foundation of contemporary scholarship.

“They need to understand how modern technologies work,” she says, “to understand how to use them accurately and ethically.

“There are so many objects in our collection that aren’t by a known artist or that aren’t in the best condition, or they’re very small, and people walk by them in a gallery space,” Fischer adds. “By making a 3D model available in our online platform, we’re encouraging people to notice, research and, hopefully, appreciate them more.”

Learn more about photogrammetry and RTI at WCMA.

Kim Catley is a frequent contributor to Williams Today.