Research News

Wond’ry exhibit takes digital humanities into three dimensions

A new exhibit at the Wond’ry showcasing the work of Vanderbilt’s Slave Societies Digital Archive team will feature some unusual pieces of digital preservation: 3D-printed replicas of valuable artifacts from cultures linked to the Atlantic slave trade.

The Vanderbilt community is invited to visit the exhibit and learn more about the SSDA at a reception Thursday, March 29, at 4 p.m. in the second-floor common space at the Wond’ry.

“I call what we do ‘guerilla preservation,’” said Jane Landers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History and director of the SSDA. The SSDA is the oldest and largest open-access clearinghouse of digital records relating to the Atlantic slave trade. It’s hosted by the Jean and Alexander Heard Library’s Special Collections.

Landers and her team travel to towns and villages across South America and the Caribbean, high-resolution scanning cameras in tow, in search of any documentation related to the Atlantic slave trade or slave society that may be stored away in churches, town halls and even family attics. Many of these ledgers, letters, books and other documents are in perilously fragile shape, as centuries of moisture, fungus and insects have taken their toll.

In many cases, Landers and her team leave the scanning equipment with the community and train residents to continue the work—and when it’s complete, one copy of the data goes to the SSDA while the other one stays with the community. “It’s not an extractive, exploitative process,” she said. “It’s one which preserves and makes these materials accessible to everyone.”

Over the years, Landers has also acquired a variety of artifacts related to the cultures she works to preserve, including statues of African gods and Catholic saints, as well as masks and artwork. Landers was hesitant to display these important items outside of a museum setting, so she turned to a different type of digital technology to find a solution: a 3D printer.

“We were very fortunate to be able to collaborate with the Wond’ry and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, said Angela Sutton, a postdoc working with Landers. Sutton took the artifacts to the pediatric radiology department where Sumit Pruthi, associate professor of radiology, medical resident Hansen Bow and medical design engineer Steven Lewis used a 360-degree surface scanner to capture highly detailed images of each object. “For some of the smaller objects it was more difficult to do because they were dark-colored, so the shadows couldn’t be picked up as well,” she said. “Dr. Pruthi volunteered to send those through a CT scanner instead.”

These design files were uploaded to 3D printers at Pruthi’s lab and the Wond’ry Makerspace, where the objects were replicated in lightweight plastic. Sutton then painted the objects to match the originals.

“What’s so cool about this project is that it takes the physical item into the digital realm and then back into the physical,” said Kevin Galloway, research assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Wond’ry’s Makerspace.

Like the scanned records, the design files and documentation about the original objects are publicly available online to anyone who wants to reproduce them with their own 3D printer.

The SSDA exhibit is located in room 210 at the Wond’ry and will be open through the end of the spring semester.

See a 3D image of a papier mache devil-head mask of Diablo Cojuelo, created in the Dominican Republic for the Carnival season »