How a team of students uses technology to preserve and share Black history

A woman holding a piece of techology standing behind a wooden artifact

Third-year student Amelia Matheson uses a hand-held scanner to digitize a cultural artifact at the University of Arizona Center for Digital Humanities.

Arlene Islas/University Communications

Students at the University of Arizona Center for Digital Humanities are using technology to ferry Black history into the future.

Bryan Carter, the center's director and a professor of Africana studies, in the College of Humanities, oversees about two dozen students working on an equal number of projects using advanced technology – such as 360-degree immersive video, digital mapping, and virtual and augmented reality – to bring new depth to the humanities. Their work has transported budding scientists to field work on the Santa Cruz River with VR headsets, displayed hundreds of virtual pottery pieces in on online exhibit, digitally preserved historic spaces in New Orleans and much more.

Bryan Carter

Bryan Carter

Arlene Islas/University Communications

"Students have been at the crux of all that," Carter said. "All I do is make the opportunities available and they do all the work, and it's just great work."

Over the last two years, the Center for Digital Humanities, based in the College of Humanities, has partnered with the Tucson Center for Black Life to digitize about a dozen historical artifacts.

Founded by Charles Kendrick – who made history as the first Black graduate of the UArizona R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy – the Tucson Center for Black Life is a labor of Kendrick's love for history. He amassed his collection slowly over the years. It includes statues of Black regiments in the U.S. Army called Buffalo Soldiers, relics of Kendrick's pharmacy and more.

While the Tucson Center for Black Life is not currently open to the public, students – including Amelia Matheson, a third-year dual major in computer science and East Asian Studies – have been working to digitally preserve its artifacts and make them available for online viewing.

The digitized pieces can be shared with any museum interested in displaying them. For now, the Center for Digital Humanities plans to display them virtually at the African American Museum of Southern Arizona in the UArizona Student Union Memorial Center. Museum leaders were particularly interested in the center's work because of limitations to their physical space, Carter said.

The Center for Digital Humanities purchased podiums on which QR codes will be affixed. Visitors can scan the codes with their smartphones to virtually view the objects as if they were sitting on the podiums.

Carter and his students are also revising the website for the Tucson Center for Black Life, with plans to have an online exhibit for some of the items scanned.

The deal with digitizing

To digitize an object, the students must first prepare a neutral background.

"We begin by draping a round table or podium – something we can walk around – with a white, black or sometimes green cloth, depending on the material or color of the object," Carter said. "Then, we place it either on the table or we suspend it just above it if we have to get underneath it, because we have to be able to get to all sides of the object to get a complete scan."

Once they have decided on the placement, then they can begin scanning, which can take up to 10 minutes.

Two primary scanning methods are at their disposal.

One is photogrammetry, which requires students to capture many photos around an object at different distances. The software then stitches those together to create a 3D object, Carter said.

The other method is lidar, which relies on a handheld digital scanner – or phone with lidar sensor built in – to bounce a laser light off an object. The distance between the object and the scanner creates a 3D rendering of the object.

The method chosen depends on the characteristics of the object.

"For example, if the object is metallic and shiny, we may want to use photogrammetry because we don't want a laser light reflecting off a metallic piece of the material," Carter said. "Or, if it's something that has a lot of feathers or stringy items, we may tend to use another technique because we need to capture those a little bit more effectively."

Then, Carter and his students can process their scans. If they are unhappy with the results, they can start the process over. If they are pleased, they follow up with any necessary postprocessing to correct for color or remove any objects accidentally captured during the scanning process.

Both methods are not new, Carter stressed, but the hardware and the techniques have evolved over the years. The Center for Digital Humanities helps students learn to work with some of the most advanced technology in the field.

History for all

"Scanning and digitizing artifacts couldn't be more important, particularly in this day and age, when many artifacts are being lost, destroyed or vandalized," Carter said. "We have to keep in mind the ways to sustain these objects and make them available for future generations."

For current generations, there are many new and different ways to enjoy old artifacts.

Carter imagines the possibilities: "When you're looking at an object in a museum or gallery, you wish you could hold it or feel it, or even just see the other side of it. Digitizing makes you able to place a cultural artifact in your own space and make it either very large – to see the texture of the wood or the brushstrokes of a painting – or make it really small and place it on your desk and see what that would look like if you were to make a 3D copy of it (with permission)."

Digitization is also useful for educational and research purposes.

For example, researchers can digitize untranslated words carved in stone and run them through language learning models to possibly decipher lost languages, he said.

Digitization also allows the addition of metadata to objects, such as background on the creator or creators of the object or historical context surrounding its creation.

More personally, for Matheson, digitizing "gives me a portal into history and learning about different cultures and different time periods. It feels very special to me, because I learn more about the human experience."

And beyond the actual technical skills and historical knowledge gleaned from the digitization process, the students also get real-world experience with clients, Carter said.

"Digitizing exposes them to something important to me and that's responsible cultural engagement," Carter said. "There's a way to engage with underresourced communities and cultures that doesn't involve flying in with all these amazing tools and saying, 'This is what we're going to do for you.' There's a different approach to get full buy-in and appreciation and collaboration with other communities and cultures."  

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