The first day of Grand Challenges was a whirlwind of contained chaos; we were introduced to a new environment (behind the scenes at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery), new people and new technology. After making small talk, our group (from various backgrounds and disciplines) became quickly at ease with the fellow students and made our way to our challenge. It was focused around the problem of archiving –what we should choose to keep and preserve and well as why it is important to keep artefacts from the past – and so we were allowed to explore mysterious parts of the museum not open to the public. Tony, a curator for RAMM who is working with Grand Challenges, gave us a whistle stop tour of his part of the museum covering the items, weapons and dress of natives of countries that have suffered from colonization (such as the Native Americans in North America) and showed us the archives and allowed us to hold a club brought back by Captain Cook from the Society Islands. I carried it gingerly from paranoia of breaking a treasured piece of history, yet I was somewhat happy to get up close to something normally isolated behind a piece of glass. Later, after establishing the tasks for the week, we were shown and allowed to handle (with gloves) an abundance of artefacts in order to choose the item for our challenge. Our tiny group was split further, one object picked per group, and research began on our specific items. My group worked with a Yoruba mask from Otta that is used in Gelede celebrations.

Yoruba gelede mask This finely carved mask is possibly from Otta, capital of Aworri state

Yoruba gelede mask

On the second day we were thrown into another new experience: conducting an interview. We had all the necessary information about our mask at our fingertips but now was the time to quiz an expert, and so we chose our questions carefully, focusing on the Yoruba culture as well as the use and significance of the masks and individual differences between them. Having never interviewed someone before, and having only learnt a little about the mask the day before, we were uncertain on where to begin. Tony, a fountain of knowledge, made the whole process easy and enjoyable; he provided us with reassurance as well as plenty of content for the video we would produce. Not only did we learn the technical side of filming but we also learnt a great deal about the mask we were researching. Then, mid-filming, my stomach began to growl. I was worried that the microphone might pick up the noise so I backed away slowly, trying not to bump into anything that had been around for millions of years.

 

Later in the morning we were able to photograph the mask itself. I was really excited to use such a high-spec camera to take some professional and high quality images. We used the opportunity with the professional lighting to create a video montage of the mask rotating in order to add to our film. Without the use of a turntable we resorted to more amateur techniques of spinning a piece of paper underneath the artefact. It seemed to work with little success at first, with shadows created in inconvenient places, but we were able to put something together in the editing process that looked professional.

 

On Wednesday, we worked with the RAMM to 3D scan our artefacts as well as other items in the museum’s collections. The whole morning was spent to getting used to the equipment and the software used to process the images. We used two types of handheld laser scanner to scan the items. It was far different from what I imagined (a huge and glassy cubic machine with several cords). In fact, they looked no more intimidating than a toaster. The technicians call one of them the “kettle”, which is used to scan large items, and the other is the “iron” to scan items with more details. One technician explained how the equipment works: the light from the scanner would hit the object’s surface and reflect back, which then transmits to the computer, so the scanner doesn’t work well with a shiny transparent surface. The mask needs to be scanned a few times and from different angles in order to have a complete replication, such as from the top down or inside of the head. We put the mask on a turntable and turned it slightly around while keeping a distance from the scanner to the object.

 

I found it hard to keep my hands from shaking. With a handheld scanner, it is difficult to keep it still, and sometimes we made it into a gruesome double-faced mask. The results on the software distracted me with noise around the object, but the technician said we can crop those out to have a complete, nicely-edited scan. He then showed us how a complete scan on the Sketchfab website looks, and it was impressive.

 

All we have left to do is pull all our work together for our final presentation on Friday. I think we are all a little bit nervous (I don’t think anyone loves public speaking) but after all our hard work I know it will go off without a hitch