Research team brings Blackfoot artifacts to life with 3-D technology



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A group of University of Lethbridge researchers and Blackfoot elders will spend two weeks in England this summer to produce detailed models of Blackfoot artifacts.

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Christine Clark, one of the researchers embarking on the trip in July, said the artifacts will be documented through a process called photogrammetry, which involves taking a series of photos all the way around the object. Software will then be used to transform the images into a realistic 3-D model.

Next year, the items will be integrated into the Blackfoot Digital Library and contextualized with the Blackfoot perspective, Clark said.

“The end goal is to put all of those 3-D models in high-resolution facsimiles of those artifacts online, so that Blackfoot people or educators or anyone can go and learn about them.

“It would also be supplemented with lots of really interesting information and context that elders involved in the project will be able to provide and kind of bring their perspective back to those objects,” Clark said.

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From there, the goal is for the items to be used as teaching tools. For example, Blackfoot artists will be able to observe detailed models of quilt work, patterns and beadwork.

Clark said the scope of the collections in England is significant, featuring hundreds of objects.

“Our team member Danielle Heavy Head is doing tons of work just going through those and highlighting some objects that are of interest,” Clark said. “And those would be chosen because of their unique beadwork or their unique materials or being representative of a particular story or tradition.”

Tyler Heaton, an MFA new media candidate, captures images that will be processed to create a 3-D model at a workshop held last fall.
Tyler Heaton, an MFA new media candidate, captures images that will be processed to create a 3-D model at a workshop held last fall. University of Lethbridge

Most European museums reject repatriation claims, according to the University of Lethbridge, hence the need to create digital models. Clark noted the objects the team will be documenting are not sacred artifacts, which have stricter protocols.

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“These are all more general use but still very important to explain a lot of the history that they’re trying to reclaim,” she said.

Heavy Head, who’s the Blackfoot Digital Library liaison, said the models will be freely available for local artists.

“Many like to do traditional crafts like making beaded outfits and moccasins,” she said in a news release. “This project allows them to examine the item closely, figure out how things were made back then and eventually be able to use those techniques in their contemporary pieces. These kinds of projects help us relearn, rediscover and reignite ceremony into the collective consciousness of our community.”

The team travelling to England will also include seven elders and two students, in addition to U of L art gallery director and curator Josie Mills, U of L art studio professor Jackson 2bears and geography instructor Marcus Dostie. The group will be documenting objects at the British Museum, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, and the Horniman Museum in London.

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“We’re hoping to get Blackfoot youth involved in working with this kind of technology and kind of use it as a gateway to having really rich conversations about their own culture, while learning coding, for example,” said Clark.

The research project, called Concepts That Bite Through Time, is supported through federal funding from the New Frontiers in Research Fund.

Clark said the team will hire students from the U of L new media program and an Indigenous art studio course to help integrate the objects into the digital library in 2020. Workshops will also be held in Blackfoot communities next year.

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