2020 Vision: behind the scenes of making a museum (but not a mouth ornament) digital.


The University of St Andrews are the caretakers of collections which span the entire history of the University, from the documents recording its foundation in 1413 up to the acquisition of the Prince Wullie, previously found in St Salvator’s Quad.

Not only important to the documentation of our university’s history, the collection remains a vital resource in teaching.  Additionally, this year we were looking forward to finally opening the doors to the new Wardlaw Museum and to bring a small sample of this collection to the fore, with new objects, new interpretations, and a fresh lick of paint to boot!

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 crisis which has turned all our lives on their heads, people will have to wait a little longer to view the displays. Even more critical, access to the collection for teaching in its current state was limited, and the usual status-quo of hands on learning with collections has been interrupted.

Behind the scenes during this whole crisis, a team of people in IT have been working with the company Mnemoscene to create an online tool, Exhibit, which allows for a narrative-based approach to exploring 2D images and 3D objects. This has presented Museums a new avenue for allowing access to the collection; not only will the collection be available online, people will be able to use the tool to create their own narratives and explore the collection in a way unique to them.

With this great opportunity has come an all new challenge for the team at Museums. How can a small team scan over 100,000 objects and make them available online? The simple answer? We can’t. However, we can make a start, with a commitment to integrate digitisation of the collection into our everyday practise. As this period of 2020 has shown, digital is no longer a nice addition, a complimentary side to the main dish of the museum. Having a high-quality digital offer ensures that, even in unprecedented times, the collection in some form can always be accessible.

Museums secured a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections fund to begin a rapid digitisation project to develop and implement a new tool for storytelling-based engagement with digitised collections. In this blog I am going to take you behind the scenes of the scanning process – taking the physical object and turning it digital.

The Artec Scanning Spider in action. The small white lights flash to ensure the object is well lit while scanning.

The Scanning Process

The two methods we are employing to digitise the objects are Photogrammetry, using a camera to capture images of an object from multiple angles and stitching them together, and using a 3D scanner, an instrument which scans an object and builds 3D models in real time.

The 3D scanner Museums use is called the Artec Space Spider – it looks like a fancy iron, but it has made the introduction into digitisation a lot simpler!

By taking multiple scans of museum objects and stitching them together in Artec Studio, we are able to produce 3D models ready to be uploaded to our database and made available online. It sounds fairly simple (so we thought back in August) and some objects were. If they have good ‘geometry’ (with lots of unique shapes and features for the program to pick up on) and good ‘texture’ (basically anything not shiny) we can make a model ready for upload in an hour or two.

However, we quickly realised many of our objects do not fit this simple criteria. Our collection has shiny things like silverware (not good), scientific instruments which are smooth and have little uniquely shaped features (not good), or are made of glass (really not good).

The object I will discuss today is an object we thought (naively) would scan well. It is relatively small, has lots of colour and unique shapes for the scanner to pick up – the dream!

The Mouth Ornament

The Mouth Ornament was acquired in the 1830’s by a Captain Brown. It was likely made on the west coast of New Ireland, but was acquired by Captain Brown on the Duke of York Islands, a popular trading post in the area at the time.  The mouth ornament is made of boars tusks, dogs teeth, dewarra shells and either glass or resin beads. It is thought it was a war charm, held by clenched teeth by warriors of Papua New Guinea.

Research into the mouth ornament is ongoing, with new information coming to light as recently as April 2020. It was considered a great piece to highlight the potential of the exhibit tool – with a rich history, component parts which each hold significance, and new interpretations which challenge our historic understanding of this object. For this reason, it was an early choice for the scanner!

Scanning the ornament

The mouth ornament after the first scan. The scanner picks up everything, including the surface it is sat on.
We remove the background to leave just the rending of the object. The small flecks around the object is the “noise” caused by reflections off the object.

We came to scan the object, and I personally was very excited as it is one of my favourite objects in the whole collection. We placed it carefully on the table and got to scanning! Early on we thought we were on to a winner, the boar tusks were picked up beautifully by the scanner, and the criss-crossing beads across the tusks, despite being small, were also showing up well!



However, the beaded tassel then came into view. When we scan, the model can occasionally exhibit what is called ‘noise’, where the light emitted by the scanner reflects off the object’s surface and creates a haze around the objects. The tassel was not just noisy, it was a whole firework. Still we persevered, as we can usually deal with noise in the post-processing stage by erasing unwanted elements.

We thought the beaded part of the tassel was bad, but then we reached the dogs teeth finial. I should mention at this point, the scanner also does not handle sharp points, thin edges or points very well. The dog teeth were all of these, as well as shiny. Needless to say, it was not picked up well at all.

Still we endured with the scans, in the hope we’d be able to salvage it in post-processing. During post-processing, we clean up the model by removing any unwanted elements, such as the table base and the aforementioned ‘noise’, we align the scans as best as we can then run the ‘autopilot’ function which does a lot of clever computer things to stitch it together into a final product.

We tried our best, we really did, but have you ever tried to differentiate one dog tooth from another? Find which green bead on one scan lines up with the green bead on the second, third and fourth scan? Needless to say, despite all our ambition, we were not able to get a complete model of the mouth ornament though our Spider Scanner. The best we could offer by the end of the day was a well modeled top part of a mouth ornament, with the tassel conveniently chopped off by the autopilot.

After approximately four hours of trial and error, we moved it to the Photogrammetry list.

Final thoughts

Our best attempt. While the top of the ornament was picked up well, the further we went down the less able we were to get a good 3D rendering.

The purpose of this blog is not to condemn the Scanning Spider and its abilities, for many objects now it has been a great success. More, it is to shed some light on this process and demonstrate its not always plain sailing – technology is very clever, but sometimes it is boggled by a shiny surface. Whilst not quite an Aladdin’s cave of glittering jewels and gold, we have come to realise our collections is pretty shiny, albeit comprising lacquered wooden boxes filled with metal and glass scientific instruments, or silver spoons from students of the past.

Digitisation on this scale is not a quick fix or an instant remedy for this COVID-sized hole we have been left to deal with. We have been fortunate to have a small team who have been able to dedicate their time fully to get some of the collection available in time for teaching. However, it has become clear for Museums that digitisation is a long-term commitment, it needs time and dedication to get a whole university collection online.

Welcoming everyone (but not their umbrellas) for more than 170 years

On Monday 16 April 1838, a group of men met in the University Library at St Andrews, with Robert Haldane, mathematician, theologian, and Principal of St Mary’s College, chairing the meeting. By his side was David Brewster, the Principal of the United College, and although these two men did not always agree on matters of religion, they, along with 35 other “Gentlemen connected with the University and the City of St Andrews” paid half a guinea each to support the foundation of a new Literary and Philosophical Society, to promote research and to found a museum in the university.

Two side by side images of a man sat with a book.
A stereoscope (3D) image of Dr John Adamson, first curator of the Museum. Library Photographic Collections: ALB-8-88.

What kind of museum?

The first meeting appointed the first curator for the new museum, John Adamson, a physician and pioneer of early photography. The Society quickly got to work, and by the time of the first general meeting of the Society in the Library on 7 May, there had already been “numerous donations” to the museum by members. On 4 June David Brewster reported that the United College would provide a room to be fitted out and used as a Museum, and by October of the same year the Society’s meetings had moved there. Soon, with a rapidly-growing collection, members of the Society began to think about the possibilities for access to the museum, including for university classes to be held in there in the future. They weren’t yet clear whether it would be (as the minutes put it) “more of a character of a University, than of a Private, museum”, but whichever it was, in the first few years it didn’t seem that the Society had a clear sense of the potential public audience for the collections and displays.

Fishermen and tradesmen

By the 1850s, the Museum was open to members of the Society, to professors and their classes, and to students studying the collection, and it also opened on Saturdays in summer for the public. Evidently relishing the way public access had brought interesting things to him for the collection, Curator John Adamson reported in 1855 that since the Museum had been “thrown open to the fishermen” the Society had been given some interesting specimens for the collection. The same year, he proudly noted that as many as 247 people had visited on one afternoon, and that “many tradesmen” had as a result begun to study natural history. The following year, in summer 1856, interest was similarly strong but the curator’s report had a note of caution: there had been damage done, by accident, because of the number of visitors. They were in future to be asked to leave sticks, parasols, and umbrellas outside rather than bringing them into the museum to protect the Museum and its collection.

Rows of glass museum display cases with antlers and taxidermy mounted aroudn the walls.
The Museum in Upper College Hall in 1910. Library Photographic Collections: StAU-BMMus-1.

A penny or two

All was not, however, well with the Society’s finances despite this growing public interest in the Museum. The University had already had to contribute to the costs of taking care of the collection, and from 1857 the Society introduced admission fees for the Museum. Members of the Society were still admitted free with up to five guests, students of the University were admitted free on Saturday, and special arrangements were made for professors and their classes to use the museum. School pupils were welcome on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as long as they were accompanied by a teacher or tutor, and they paid 1 penny each, with general admission for the public charged at 2 pence each.

Fast forward to today

Fast forward more than 150 years, and the Museums of the University of St Andrews no longer charge entry fees, and the Wardlaw Museum and Bell Pettigrew Museum are currently temporarily closed due to the impact of coronavirus Covid-19. This April, the Museums team are celebrating the birthday of the Literary and Philosophical Society and its museum. Whether you are a student, fisherman, tradesman, school pupil, or anyone else, we look forward to welcoming you to the Museums when we’re able to reopen. But we might still ask you to leave your umbrella at the door, to protect the collections and objects on display, among them some of the ones that were acquired by the Literary and Philosophical Society for its collections 182 years ago.

The first volume of the minutes of the Literary and Philosophical Society (1838-1861) has been digitised by the University of St Andrews Library. If you would like to learn more about the society, click here to view the minutes online.

Dr Katie Eagleton, Director of Museums

From the Archive: Conserving the Mace of St Salvator’s College

For the first of our “From the Archive” series, we will be flashing back to 2017 when one of the most iconic objects from the University’s collections, The Mace of St Salvator’s College, underwent some conservation work at the University of Glasgow’s studio in Kelvinhall.  Dr Helen Rawson, then Co-Director of Museum Collections, writes on the conservation process and the surprising discoveries that were revealed!

To view the mace, or explore more of our collection, click here to view the museums online catalogue!

The Maces of the University of St Andrews
The University’s maces represent its authority. The University has seven maces:  three dating from the 15th century, and four from the modern period. The earliest, the Mace of the Faculty of Arts, was commissioned in 1416, just a few years after the University’s foundation. The most recent, the Six Centuries Mace, was made to celebrate the University’s 600th anniversary and completed in 2014.

The maces have been used in formal ceremonies, such as graduation, since their creation, and provide a direct connection to the experiences of past generations of students and staff.

The Mace of St Salvator’s College
The Mace of St Salvator’s College is the most spectacular of the maces. It was commissioned by the College founder, Bishop James Kennedy, and created in Paris in 1461 by the goldsmith Johne Maiel. It is made of silver, partly gilded, with an iron core.

Gold mace head decorated with Christian imagery.
Head of the Mace of St Salvator’s College

The mace head takes the form of an open shrine, containing at its centre the figure of St Salvator, Christ the Holy Saviour, on a globe representing the world. He bears the wounds of the crucifixion. Three angels carry three emblems of the Passion of Christ:  the pillar, cross and spear. Below these are three dungeon entrances, each containing a chained wild man with shields representing the see of St Andrews, Bishop Kennedy and St Salvator’s College. The figures of a king, a bishop and possibly a merchant probably represent the Three Estates of medieval society.

The rod has three knops, consisting of an arrangement of pulpits and balconies. On the highest are three angels and three scholars with books. The lowest features three scholars or preachers with scrolls and three figures looking upwards towards the Saviour in adoration. The emphasis on the number three in the design relates to the Holy Trinity.

Conserving the Mace
The mace was conserved in June 2017, to ensure that it remains in the best possible condition, and can continue to be safely used in ceremonies. A specialist independent conservator, Richard Rogers, identified various issues, including a slight looseness, or wobble, to the head; a bent pinnacle on the mace-head; loose fixings for the angels on the highest knop on the rod; and tarnishing of the silver.

A man using a paintbrush to clean the dismantled macehead.
Richard Rogers, specialist conservator, working on the mace

For the first time since 1866, the mace was dismantled. It was inspected and cleaned, while loose elements were stabilised and small repairs carried out. As the bent pinnacle on the mace-head was in danger of being lost, it was detached, straightened and carefully re-bonded: the weakness was found to result from a flaw in the original medieval casting. Throughout, the focus was on ‘conservation’, not ‘restoration’: respecting the historical integrity of the mace and the original craftsmanship, not making it appear as ‘good as new’.

The work was carried out in the University of Glasgow’s new conservation studios in Kelvinhall, generously made available for this purpose, instead of Richard Rogers’s usual lab in England. This enabled specialists from the University of St Andrews and National Museums Scotland to oversee the conservation and to take crucial decisions and make exciting discoveries as it progressed.

Small engraved mark on a mace handle surrounded by engraved decoration.
Medieval maker’s mark

The conservation work provided invaluable insights into the original design and structure of the mace, and later repairs, through revealing the hidden interior. Previous work on the mace is known to have been carried out in 1685, by the goldsmith Michael Ziegler of Edinburgh, and in 1866, by the Edinburgh silversmiths G. and M. Crichton.  Unfortunately, the exact nature of this work was not documented.

Dismantling the mace revealed how the various decorative elements are fixed together, and how the original structure has been altered in the past. Medieval wedges still hold fast after nearly six centuries, sometimes augmented by resin added later. The iron rod at the centre of the mace was found to have been adjusted, almost certainly in 1866, with the addition of screw turnings, securing the head and foot more firmly: precise measurements revealed these to be 5/8” Whitworth threads, a system devised in 1841 and in widespread use by the 1860s.

Close inspection of the angels on the top knop revealed that one appears to be medieval, one probably 17th century and one 19th century. This corresponds with the known dates of work on the mace and that missing angels had been replaced. Excitingly, a medieval maker’s mark was discovered on the mace rod.

Future Use
With the work complete, the Mace of St Salvator’s College will continue to be carried in ceremonies, as it has been for so many centuries.  When not in use, this beautiful and powerful emblem of the University’s authority and history will be displayed in the Wardlaw Museum.