Please Touch the Exhibit

New technology allows visitors to do what is normally taboo, handle parts of a museum exhibition

eileen johnson compares a real spear to a 3d printed one
Eileen Johnson, director of the Landmark, compares a real Folsom spear point, left, with a 3-D printed version of the 10,500 year-old object.

Whether you visit the Louvre or the smallest museum the message is the same ‘ne pas toucher les objets’ – do not touch the objects. But the Lubbock Lake Landmark is breaking the mold and encouraging visitors to handle some of the 10,500 year old tools and bones in a new exhibition.

The Landmark, a part of the Museum of Texas Tech University, is an internationally known archaeological and natural history preserve. The exhibition, opening in November 2016, focuses on the Folsom-era people who lived 10,200 to 10,800 years ago. It’s an exhibition the Landmark is uniquely positioned to undertake. The Landmark is the site of one of the oldest record of human existence in North America, dating back about 12,000 years.

stance hurst photographs an object with an enclosed, white fabric container
Stance Hurst, the regional research manager at the Landmark and an instructor in the museum science master’s program, photographs an object from the exhibition in preparation for the 3-D printing process.

The area once was a reservoir. The water drew animals that provided a food source for humans who were either passing through or chose to live in the area. Now dry, the area covered by the Landmark is rich in archaeological history, yielding bones, tools and weapons. It is some of those tools and weapons that visitors can pick up, thanks to 3-D printing technology.

For Eileen Johnson, director of the Landmark and director of academic and curatorial programs at the Museum of Texas Tech University, finding a way to make some of the objects available for people to handle was a logical next step.

jessica stepp holding a 3d printed object hooked up to an audio device and speakers.
Museum science master’s student Jessica Stepp holds a 3-D printed Folsom point with an audio device inserted. When the point is touched, the audio will play telling the visitor about the object.

“We want to look at their culture, but in a different way,” said Johnson. “My approach to research is that everything is connected. Research, education and public access is all intertwined. As we were brainstorming for this exhibition we kept coming back to how do we make our research and the objects we have more accessible for visitors?”

The answer was hiding in plain sight in a class taught by Stance Hurst, the regional research manager at the Landmark and an instructor in the museum science master’s program.

The exhibition utilizes 3-D printing to reproduce a few of the tools used by the Folsom hunters and the bison bones found at various archaeological dig sites.

“The Folsom hunters had the most sophisticated stone tool kits in history,” Hurst said. “Using 3-D printing, we’re able to demonstrate how sophisticated these people were.”

a shot of a camera pointed at object inside a white container, surrounded by lights
The 3-D printing process begins with taking a photograph of the object. The image is then put into a computer program that tells the printer what to print. The finished 3-D printed object is an exact replica of the spear point right down to the ridges and grooves found on the original. The only difference is color. The exhibition team has also added braille to the 3-D printed objects to make the exhibition more accessible to visually impaired persons.

The Folsom exhibition relates to research at the Landmark and at a campsite near Abilene, Texas, where there was a workshop of sorts where the Folsom peoples made stone tools. Folsom people were a Paleo-Indian culture that occupied much of central North America.

“This is a place that’s about a two hour drive from the Landmark now,” Hurst said. “Back then, these people didn’t have pack animals so they had to carry everything as they moved around. The exhibit lets us make connections between how they made and transported these tools across the area.”

computer program with 3d artifact model being created.

A major player in making the exhibition touchable is museum science master’s student Jessica Stepp. While taking Hurst’s class, she became interested in 3-D printing technology and its potential for museums. Her thesis focuses on 3-D technology and museums and this exhibition has given her a living laboratory.

“Having experienced 3-D technology in Dr. Hurst’s class was an ‘ah ha’ moment for me,” she said. “The technology is out there and a lot of fields of study are using it, and I felt it could really be applicable to museums and the heritage management sector.”

Other museums are using some form of 3-D printing, larger ones such as the Smithsonian are using expensive 3-D modeling laser scanning, said Johnson. But for the Museum of Texas Tech University and other mid-sized museums, 3-D modeling photogrammetry is the most cost effective method. Using photogrammetry, images of an object are captured with a camera and converted to 3-D models for the 3-D printer. The result, a realistic reproduction of a tool or bone, complete with the ridges and indentations covering the original. The 3-D printed objects will also feature braille to help sight impaired visitors experience the exhibit.

close up of 3d printer working

“I couldn’t find many museums, especially those of our size, who are using 3-D printing of any type,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, we’re pushing some boundaries with this exhibition by incorporating technology in ways to make things much more accessible.”

Stepp brought another wrinkle to the equation with an audio device called a Raspberry Pi which is a credit card-sized device that when a sensor is touched by a visitor it plays pre-recorded information about a specific part of the exhibit.

For the Landmark’s heritage education manager, Susan Rowe, the addition of touchable objects is a boon.

“It is second nature for me to think about ways the public, especially kids, can get a better handle on what we do here,” she said. “Having an object you can pick up and hold really brings home what you’re seeing. People aren’t sure what they’ll see here. It’s so much fun to see our visitors realize that people and animals were here 12,000 years ago doing similar things that we do today.”

close up of object next to 3d printed version

Rowe also will utilize 3-D printed objects in trunks that can be taken to area classrooms and left for teachers to use in lesson plans. “In the education section we usually get bone fragments and scraps that can’t be used elsewhere,” she said. “Now we’ll have representations of actual tools and bones for the kids to use and touch.”

While the exhibit takes a look back at an ancient people and their way of life, Johnson believes the use of modern technology will make the Folsom people come alive for visitors to the Landmark.

“When you go to a museum, you’re always told don’t touch,” she said. “We are encouraging you to touch if not the real object, at least as close as we can come.”

About the Landmark

The Lubbock Lake Landmark is located in north Lubbock in a meander of Yellowhouse draw, an area of ancient springs. People of the Southern High Plains have lived in the area continuously for about 12,000 years. The springs went dry in the early 1930s and sediment covered the traces of human activity. The first exploration of the site was conducted in 1939 by the West Texas Museum, which became the Museum of Texas Tech University. By the late 1940s, several Folsom Period bison kill sites were discovered. Excavations continue today and researchers and students come from around the world to work at the Landmark and other archaeological sites in the area.


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