Darwin making competition won by Computer Science crochet

12 February 2014

When the Grant Museum moved to its new location from UCL’s Darwin building, the bust of the famous biologist that had stood in its window went with it.  A new eponymous figurehead was needed for the site where he lived, and where UCL biosciences researchers now continue his work. Through a university-wide competition the making and measuring skills of UCL’s population have been harnessed to create a multitude, although not quite an endless one, of Darwin forms.

A 3D scan (right) of the bust recorded by UCL Civil, Environmental & Geomatics researcher Mona Hess was shared with members of UCL’s Institute of Making, the interdisciplinary open workshop and materials library housed within Engineering. The makers were challenged to recreate the Darwin bust from the data, using whatever making techniques they liked. The winner would receive £300, and all the Darwins were to be on show around UCL.

Entries to the competition included Jo Howcroft’s bust recreated from layered theatrical lighting filters, and James Mould’s nutrient enriched gel cast into the shape of Darwin’s head, which will be inhabited and excavated by an ant colony. Another student, Cristina Amati, created Darwin as a crocheted floating head complete with sparks of insight in his beard. Graeme Smith and Tom Catling sculpted a miniature Darwin bust USB stick carrying the digital Darwin’s data encoded into nucleotides ready to be stored in DNA.

A judging panel including Dr Zoe Laughlin, creative director of the UCL Institute of Making, and Mark Carnall, Curator at the Grant Museum, selected Cristina Amati’s soft model as the overall winner. Emeritus Professor of Genetics Steve Jones said, when awarding the prizes:

“We all agreed on the winner: it was so original, so eccentric and beautifully done by hand. Both as an image and a witty take on Darwin himself, a worthy winner.”

Two equal second prizes were awarded to Andrew Breeson, for a work cutting Darwin’s silhouette into the pages of a copy of the Origin of Species, and jointly to Graeme Smith and Tom Catling for their customized USB drive. You can see a gallery of all the entries on the Institute of Making Flickr gallery.

Ms Amati, an EngD student in UCL Computer Science who studies image aesthetics, said:

“This is a real surprise – I never expected to win. I made him as a little challenge because I was curious to see if I could crochet 3d geometry from reference images. I think he’ll be in good hands in the Grant Museum.”

A crocheted portrait of charles Darwin by Cristina Amati on display in UCL's Grant Museum

The Darwin on display.

The scan data was originally recorded as part of the ongoing project for scanning faces from museum collections, from the wax auto-icon topping off UCL’s own Jeremy Bentham to Isaac Newton’s death mask and a negative mould of James Watt.

This dataset was captured using a hand-held 3D scanning unit based on triangulation which projects a laser line onto the object; a camera unit then measures how the line bends on across a wiggling surface. As an infra-red unit tracks the position of the scanning head itself, allowing all of those 2D slices to be assembled together in real time. The operator can freely walk around the object during the scanning process: a bit like virtually painting the surface. The result is a dense cloud of points in 3D outlining the object, with a resolution of less than 1mm. In fact, the model of Darwin generated by Ms Hess was so detailed that it needed to be compressed tenfold in order to be manageable for the makers.

UCL’s heritage researchers use the engineering potential of tools like 3D laser scanners to open up new ways for museums to digitally document, monitor and share their exhibits, from 10 metre long war canoes to 10 mm long scarabs. Reproductions (although not normally as imaginative as these of Darwin) can allow audiences to get closer to the items, and they can be sent to other locations opening up the collections to different peoples.

Ms Hess said:

“Our cultural heritage and resources are under threat, and many interesting objects are hidden in museum archives. Digital preservation methods, like these 3D scans, can offer a solution for documentation and increased public access, but there’s a lot of work to do. We need technology transfer from engineering to museums and community help through crowdsourcing: initiatives like this one are a great opportunity to show people what the 21st century can do for collections and how they can get involved.”

The Darwin or Bust exhibition will be displayed across the UCL site in the Grant Museum of Zoology, the Institute of Making and the UCL Darwin building from the 12th February (Darwin’s birthday) to the 2nd of April. Details about visiting the Darwin or Bust exhibition here.

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