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A VCU lab and Virginia nonprofit are using drones to create 3D models of Monument Avenue’s monuments

A drone piloted by Ashley McCuistion is circling the Robert E. Lee monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, taking detailed photographs that will allow her to create a 3D digital model of the controversial monument.
VCU alumna Ashley McCuistion pilots a drone to take photographs of the Robert E. Lee monument that will be used to create a 3D model. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

“Our goal is to create 3D models of the monuments on Monument Avenue and make them accessible to everyone for educational purposes, so that people can learn about their history — and the controversy surrounding them — and to preserve them because their future may or may not change.”

McCuistion, who graduated with a degree in anthropology from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2014, is digital curator and public outreach coordinator of the Fairfield Foundation, a nonprofit based in Gloucester, Virginia, that aims to promote and involve the public in hands-on archaeology, preservation and education.

McCuistion and the Fairfield Foundation are working with the Virtual Curation Laboratory at VCU, a lab in the School of World Studies that specializes in the 3D scanning of historic and archaeological objects. They are using drones to create 3D renderings of the monuments, most of which are Jim Crow-era statues memorializing Confederate leaders that are viewed by some as historic tributes to the Civil War and by others as a racist perpetuation of the Lost Cause myth.

Bernard Means, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Virtual Curation Lab, became interested in scanning the monuments after he was contacted by several teachers and museums seeking 3D models they could use as a teaching tool, allowing students to learn from the digital file or from small 3D-printed replicas.

“Different museums here in Virginia and teachers both in Virginia and outside of Virginia are really interested in 3D models of the monuments that they could print and pass around in their classrooms or use them in museum exhibits where they’re talking about the monuments — particularly about the controversy associated with the monuments,” he said.

Having a 3D-printed replica can be a valuable hands-on teaching tool. And they can help teach about the monuments to students who go to school outside of Richmond or who are visually impaired.

“You can describe the monuments as much as you want to, but it really falls short of being able to sort of touch and sort of feel that object,” Means said. “People in general, in my experience, really like to touch the object when they’re learning about it.”

McCuistion, a licensed drone operator, first learned how to 3D scan artifacts as a student intern in the Virtual Curation Lab.

“In my job, I use a lot of the skills that I learned here at VCU,” she said. “Since then, I’ve learned a lot about photogrammetry and conducted research about the best way to survey architectural sites. I found drone [technology] would be better for those things than 3D scanning. That’s going to be helpful [with this project] because we can’t reach the top of the monuments with a hand-held 3D scanner.”

Last week, McCuistion used her drone to capture images of Monument Avenue’s five statues of Confederacy figures, as well as the monument depicting Richmond native and tennis star Arthur Ashe. As of Tuesday, 3D models of three of the monuments — LeeJ.E.B. Stuart and Ashe — have been posted so far on the 3D content platform Sketchfab.

Before heading out to the monuments, McCuistion and Dave Brown, Ph.D., co-director of the Fairfield Foundation, brought a few artifacts to be 3D scanned in Means’ lab.

One was a copper alloy decorative rosette that was part of an interior furnishing at the Menokin House, which was the Richmond County, Virginia, and home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Another was a wine bottle seal from a public outreach excavation the Fairfield Foundation is doing with York County at New Quarter Park. And the third was a mantel fragment from the Fairfield manor house in Gloucester County that was built in 1694.

“We initiated a project that was partially inspired by Dr. Means two years ago that Ashley McCuistion is running, where we are going to 3D print every layer of the excavation of the site and then reconstruct the building in 3D with printed materials that help us focus on not just the process of archaeology but the process of architectural restoration,” Brown said. “And this mantel fragment, we can manipulate it with the digital file, recreate the missing components and then print it to scale so that when we reconstruct the house, it'll include that component in the reconstruction.”

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