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.

Witchcraft and mystery, or, the object that never was in our collection

Witchcraft and mystery, or, the object that never was in our collection

Jessica Burdge and Katie Eagleton


Every museum has at least one object that people sometimes ask about, but which actually isn’t in their collection.  For the Museums of the University of St Andrews there is an added layer of mystery, because ours is a witch skull, and we can’t illustrate this blog with a photograph of it, because it has disappeared.

Lilias Adie, picture courtesy of Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee


More than 300 years ago, Lilias Adie from Torryburn, Fife, was accused of witchcraft. She died in prison in 1704, before the sentence of execution could be carried out, and her remains were buried on the beach weighed down by a large stone, which was said to be to stop her coming back to haunt people. In the 19th century, her remains were exhumed, and accounts you can find online today usually say that the skull was initially in the private collection of a doctor in Dunfermline, then in the University of St Andrews anatomy collection – but went missing sometime in the 20th century. Today, more than 300 years after Adie’s death, there are attempts to find her remains, and to more respectfully remember her and others who were tried for, and convicted of, witchcraft in Scotland.

It’s a story that has all the elements of a mystery story: witchcraft and a disappearing skull. As a result, we receive reasonably regular queries asking where the skull is now, and what records we have of it in our collection in the past?

The St Andrews connection seems to begin on 30th September 1884, when twelve men of the Fifeshire Medical Association met at St Andrews, in the classroom of Professor Pettigrew, anatomist at the University. The first talk was on the history of the University, and the second talk was on Lilias Adie. Dr William Barrie Dow from Dunfermline showed her skull to the gentlemen present, explained his observations on it, and read extracts from the Kirk-Session records. There was then a third talk on the then-recently-described tuberculosis bacterium, including viewing of specimens through microscopes, before everyone repaired to the Cross Keys Hotel for dinner and speeches to celebrate Dr Dow having been elected President of the Association for the coming year (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 2 October 1884, page 3).

It is not clear who owned the skull in 1884 – or, indeed, whether the group took it to the Cross Keys with them – but in the published version of his talk, Dow named Robert Couston (who had not been present at the meeting) as the former owner of the skull. Sometime around the turn of the century, although it is not known where or by whom, three photographs of the skull were taken, and it is these that have recently allowed a reconstruction of Adie’s face to be created by specialists at the University of Dundee. In 1901 and 1904, Robert Couston published articles about Lilias Adie in the Dunfermline Press in which he said that her skull had come to the St Andrews Museum.

The problem is, we can find no trace of it.

From 1838 onwards, the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society, who were responsible for the museum at the University, kept detailed lists of objects acquired for the collection, and in those there is no mention of anything that could be this skull. Nor is it included in a complete list of the museum and its collection that was compiled in 1904 when the Literary and Philosophical Society formally handed both over to the University. These records are detailed, but to be sure that the skull wasn’t somehow in the collection without proper documentation, we took copies of the photographs of Lilias Adie’s skull (which has distinctive and prominent front teeth) and compared it with the skulls in the Anatomy and Pathology collection. None were similar. The trail, at this point, goes cold, and we can only conclude that Lilias Adie’s skull was probably never part of the collections at the University of St Andrews.

However, readers who know the history of the University and the history of its museums may have spotted a coincidence of locations here, that might be the key to unlocking this mystery. That is, Professor Pettigrew’s rooms at the University were in the United College Building, only a few hundred metres from the location of the University Museum, which in 1884 was in Upper College Hall.

Perhaps, then, there is no witchcraft and no mysterious disappearance here at all – if statements that the skull was in the University of St Andrews Museum trace back to newspaper reports by someone who wasn’t there, published 15 years later, of an evening in 1884 when a group of medical gentlemen examined Adie’s skull at the University close to – but not in – the University Museum.

The last time the location of Lilias Adie’s skull was known was in 1938 when it was displayed along with other objects relating to witchcraft as part of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, in one of the two Scottish pavilions. One contemporary newspaper reported that it “grins from a showcase”, and repeats Couston’s statement that the skull had previously been in the collections of the University of St Andrews but gives no details about who at that point owned it (Falkirk Herald, 16 July 1938, page 7). Records of the Empire Exhibition are now held in the University of Glasgow Archives but the Hunterian Museum has no record of Lilias Adie’s skull being deposited in their collection, so it may be that it is still in a private collection somewhere.

The search continues.