Suggested words

Brummel the Cat goes 3D

Published by: Kevin Bacon

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

Photo of model cat in Brighton Museum foyer

Photo by nickzeff, CC BY-NC-ND, Flickr

How a 19th century Art Nouveau cat has given birth to a surprising digital litter.

We allow visitors to take photographs in most of our museums. Sometimes we can’t permit photography: in the Royal Pavilion and some of our temporary exhibitions we have to respect the wishes of lenders who do not want their works to be photographed, and sometimes we also need to protect the copyright of artists whose work is on display. But where possible we allow photography and often actively encourage it — visitors capturing their experiences of our museums and sharing them on social media is a really effective form of word of mouth promotion.

But what if a 2D photograph is no longer enough? What if a visitor wishes to capture a favourite item on display as a 3D model?

This issue briefly became a news story back in early 2016 when two artists released a 3D model of a famous bust of the Ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, which they claimed to have scanned from the original in Berlin’s Neues Museum in defiance of their no photography policy. It later transpired that they had almost certainly re-used an existing model but it opened up a debate. If 3D scanning technology becomes sufficiently lightweight and easy for a casual visitor to use, will museums find their displayed collections being reproduced and even 3D printed in places beyond their control?

To bring this subject closer to home, here’s a 3D model of Brummel the cat that sits in the entrance foyer of Brighton Museum.

This model was made by animator Dave Packer of Sheep Films. We know Dave well from his work on Remix the Museum, and we were happy for him to make and release the model. The model was created with photogrammetry, a technique in which a 3D model is created from multiple still photographs.It can be tricky to get good results with photogrammetry, but it is one way in which a visitor to a museum could digitise an object in one of our museums with relative ease. Indeed, Dave did not require any additional supervision when capturing Brummel.

Perhaps the real question is not whether museums should allow visitors to turn their exhibits into 3D models, but where does this process of capture and recreation end? Brummel is a donation box made in the 1990s which was based on an original animal figure made by the French artist Émile Gallé in the 1880s (a pair of these can be found on display in our 20th Century Art & Design gallery). So Dave’s 3D model is already a third generation replication of Gallé’s design; where might that cat go next?

The German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote extensively about the anxieties of this process in his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. But Dave addresses the possibility rather more succinctly in this animated GIF.

Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager