In Defense of the Virtual Reconstruction

Let me start by saying that I’m a huge proponent of 3-D modeling, the topic of Day Four of Building a Digital Portfolio. We started our morning by debating the value of semi-immersive virtual reconstructions, and I argued in support of them 100%. I have used SketchUp in my own research, not necessarily as a means of illustrating a space to my audience, but as a way of learning more about my topic (in this case a fifteenth-century Neapolitan funerary chapel, known as the Succorpo of San Gennaro) through digitally reconstructing it. Learning through building—one of the main values of SketchUp according to my supervisor at the University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Collaboratory Quint Gregory. I noticed things through this process that I’m confident I never would have recognized by merely looking at photographs or standing in the physical space of the chapel.

SCALA_ARCHIVES_1039930018Workshop of Tommaso Malvito da Como, Succorpo of San Gennaro, Cathedral of Naples, 1497-1506. Image: Artstor.

I’m also a supporter of using 3-D models to reconstruct and preserve knowledge about rapidly deteriorating archeological sites. My first introduction to virtual reconstructions came in the summer of 2010 when I participated in the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation’s archaeological dig at the Villa Arianna. Because of its recent excavation and the fact that it is not yet open to the public, the Villa Arianna (at least in 2010) was not in as poor a state as many other ancient villas on the Bay of Naples. The value and urgency of documenting every aspect of these places, as soon as humanly possible, was abundantly clear to me on my first day at Stabiae. The art and architecture of these buildings will not be around forever, and so much of the artwork has already been removed to museums that it can be extremely difficult even for the informed (non-specialist) art historian to appreciate and understand the sites they’re visiting. I think there is an enormous value in virtual reconstruction projects like: Rome Reborn or The Oplontis Project, and I imagine that the degree of material loss in one’s field influences one’s opinion on the significance of virtual reconstructions. If you’re studying lost, largely destroyed, or rapidly deteriorating artworks, the need to document and preserve those originals probably feels much more urgent than if your subject matter can be accessed and understood relatively easily by students and the general public.

That said, the conversation we had this morning about the importance of expressing uncertainty in a virtual model struck a chord with me. Participant Bethany Ferrell Rivello suggested that art historians take a conservationist approach to these types of projects, one that somehow reveals the degree of change the digital restorer has made from the original, as well as their degree of [un]certainty. Whether through color, transparency, or some other digital mediation, I would agree that the creators of digital models should make abundantly clear to their audiences which aspects of their reconstructions are based on strong documentary evidence, and which are scholarly conjecture. I think that we all win if we make honest, accurate virtual reconstructions publicly available in a way that serves the needs of multiple audiences.

Source: In Defense of the Virtual Reconstruction