On virtual auras: The cultural heritage object in the age of 3D digital reproduction

John Hindmarch, Melissa Terras, Stuart Robson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Making 3D models for public facing cultural heritage applications currently concentrates on creating digitised models that are as photo realistic as possible. The virtual model should have, if possible, the same informational content as its subject, in order to act as a ‘digital surrogate’. This is a reasonable approach, but due to the nature of the digitisation process and limitations of the technology, it is often very difficult, if not impossible.

However, museum objects themselves are not merely valued for their informational content; they serve purposes other than simply imparting information. In modern museums exhibits often appear as parts of a narrative, embedded within a wider context, and in addition, have physical properties that also retain information about their creation, ownership, use, and provenance. This ability for an object to tell a story is due to more than just the information it presents. Many cultural heritage objects have, to borrow an old term, aura: an affectual power to engender an emotional response in the viewer. Is it possible that a 3D digitised model can inherit some of this aura from the original object? Can a virtual object also have affectual power, and if so, fulfil the role of a museum object without necessarily being a ‘realistic’ representation?

In this chapter we will first examine the role of museums and museum exhibits, particularly as regards to their public-facing remits, and what part aura plays. We will then ask if digitised objects can also have aura, and how they might help to fulfil the museums’ roles. We will see in the case of the Science Museum’s Shipping Gallery scan, that a digitised resource can, potentially, exhibit affectual power, and that this ability depends as much on the presentation and context of the resource as the information contained within it.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites
EditorsHannah Lewi, Wally Smith, Dirk vom Lehn, Cooke Steve
Place of PublicationOxford
ISBN (Electronic)9780429506765
ISBN (Print)9781138581296
Publication statusPublished - 12 Nov 2019


  • 3D scanning
  • digitisation
  • cultural heritage
  • laser scanning
  • Science Museum
  • digital surrogate
  • affectual power
  • aura


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