You can’t often touch a piece of history, but 3D printed artifacts are teaching kids about slavery

Our knowledge of history often comes from textbooks or from visiting museums, but it’s rare to be able to hold a piece of history in your hands.

One Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor is trying to change that.

Bernard Means, the director of VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, and his students are using 3D printing to put Virginia’s history within reach for teachers and their students. “So the goal is to 3D scan artifacts, put them online as animations, and also as models that people could manipulate on the screen, to encourage teachers and researchers to use these materials,” Means explained.

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This is a 3D animation of a leg shackle from a collection at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia. (VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab)

Means is working to provide the online resource, Encyclopedia Virginia, with animations of some of these artifacts because 2019 marks 400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved people in Virginia.

All of the artifacts deal with the era of slavery in Virginia, but many explore aspects of slavery that aren’t always in the history books.

“Some of these things represent food that was consumed by enslaved people,” Means explained. “One of the things that researchers are interested in is, how much food were they provided as enslaved laborers? How much food did they grow themselves or raise themselves?”

On top of that, some of the artifacts include ritual items like crystals that Means said appear to have been placed in the corners of houses to possibly ward off evil spirits.

Then there are artifacts like buttons that were more a form of expression.

“One of the ways that slaves could sort of cheaply express themselves, especially with the plain clothing they were required to wear, were to purchase buttons,” Means explained.

Means said the artifacts he’s scanned help give “a stronger identity to enslaved people.” Instead of just learning about when slavery began and when it ended, these artifacts give students an idea of what daily life may have looked like.

These scanned artifacts are also available on the website Sketchfab so schools can 3D print the artifacts in the classroom.

M.C. Bernheart, a 5th-grade teacher at Short Pump Elementary School in Henrico County, Virginia, had her students select and research artifacts scanned at the Virtual Curation Lab.

“So the students were researching that artifact and coming up with ways that it could be used in a museum because pretty soon, they are going to create their own museum all about Henrico history, the county that we live in,” Bernheart explained.

For many of the students, Bernheart said, being able to learn about and touch a piece of history keeps them engaged.

“They can see the size, they can feel the texture, although it’s a 3D print,” Bernheart added. “It really brings the history alive, rather than just looking at a virtual museum.”

This is a brick with fingerprints from an enslaved person found at George Mason’s Gunston Hall. (VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab)

Means said combining 3D printing with a history lesson can also help spark a student’s interest in a subject. Beyond that, he said the scans are meant to give students a better idea of what it would have been like to be an enslaved person.

“What do these things mean, not only as an individual object, but what do they mean as a group of objects?” Means said. “What does this help tell us about somebody who lived in the past?”

The most important part, Means said, is that the items students can print are just one step removed from an actual historical artifact.

“They know when they’re 3D printing this, this wasn’t created on a computer screen,” he said.

Read more stories from Alix Hines on Circa.

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