Creating 3D digital models of museum collection objects

The Portland Museum is dedicated to working with its local community to protect and promote the unique heritage of the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Over the past five years, the museum has used advances in digital technology across the arts and heritage sectors to create new ways for people to engage with its collections. This resource explains how the museum trained and supported volunteers to produce 3D digital models of items from its collection.

Pottery shard from a Farewell mug at Portland Museum
3D model: pottery shard from a Farewell mug from Earl of Abergavenny shipwreck. Image courtesy Portland Museum©

Creating 3D digital models of museum collection objects

This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.

1. Project background

The Portland Museum houses a diverse and fascinating collection based on the themes of maritime history, quarrying and the Portland stone industry, dinosaurs and fossils, archaeology, folklore and local customs.

Across the heritage sector there is a strong band of volunteers dedicated to sharing the collections of their organisations. 3D digital modelling techniques have recently become more accessible to the average person. Consequently, the advances in technology now make it possible to train volunteers and enable them to share with others the collections they love in a digital format. Objects that often lie hidden in storage for years due to lack of display space are now reproduced online and visible to a global audience.


2. Recruitment

We were aiming to recruit: 12-18 year olds; heritage volunteers with no previous digital experience; men with no previous volunteer experience but with an interest in heritage; local volunteers of both sexes interested in heritage and learning and developing new digital skills.

Recruitment methods

  • Open call: local and national TV, radio and newspapers;
  • local schools/colleges;
  • volunteer recruitment organisations;
  • social media directed at nationwide heritage and volunteer organisations;
  • U3A groups;
  • young people’s drop in centres;
  • libraries;
  • arts/heritage partnerships;
  • Dorset Museums Service.

Most of our volunteers came from local newspaper callouts. These volunteers were interested in working with local heritage suggesting a direct connection between person and place.

A specialist archaeological contractor MSDS Marine provided the 3D digital modelling training for volunteers, recommending a specific technique and types of equipment. The Education Manager from the Nautical Archaeology Society worked with the volunteers to produce the Volunteer Digital Recording Manual. And Portland Museum’s Project Manager provided continual training and support to the volunteers throughout the digital programme and also purchased equipment.


3. Volunteer support

On site presence of project manager to provide tech support for digital activities and to contribute to volunteer social requirements; credit and photo publicity given to volunteers and the 3D digital models they created through sharing across social media channels; option of working in pairs/small teams or singly depending on preference of volunteer; hot drinks and snacks always available; regular project updates disseminated via Mailchimp; sharing of new learning points from one team to another via project manager; Weekly Zoom, face to face, phone or email contact (depending on individual volunteer’s personal preference) for volunteers to communicate any talking points with project manager. Volunteers who required extra support requested this of the project manager who supplied extra time to spend working with them on discrete activities.


4. Digital technology and tools

Types of technology digital volunteers used:

  • 3D digital modelled museum artefacts using Polycam app on an iPad and an iPad pro
  • Shared 3D digital models and wrote interpretation using Sketchfab
  • Communicated with project team using email, Zoom and WhatsApp



  • Polycam app subscription: £49.99 per year
  • iPad pro: £849.00*
  • iPad: £369.00
  • Zoom licence: £14.39 per month
  • Apexel macro lens for iPad: £45.99
  • Sketchfab: pro subscription free for charities

*An iPad pro is necessary for using Lidar to 3D model items/places of over 2 metres in size. For photogrammetry – a 3D modelling method for items smaller than 2 metres – a standard iPad will suffice and can be purchased for £369.00


5. Project stages

1. Staff and partnership recruitment and communications: recruitment of project manager; establishing roles and responsibilities of partner organisations; co-ordinating training schedules and activities with partner organisations; identifying and employing services of project evaluator.

2. Procurement of devices and technology: buying products and services recommended and required for project.

3. Volunteer recruitment: call out to relevant parties for volunteers; establishing volunteer requirements; finding suitable venue for volunteer activities based on volunteer requirements; sending out Expression of Interest forms to all prospective volunteers and recording relevant responses for evaluation.

4. Volunteer training and digital recording: Running training workshops for volunteers; coordinating and facilitating digital recording activities for volunteers.

5. Outreach: Taking museum collection items, 3D digital models and project story items out to events with volunteers and partners to engage public with digital output of project: form would best be described as a pop up museum sometimes with formal talk.

6. Training manual production: Work with project partner to produce a training manual for digital recording activities for use by volunteers in other heritage organisations.

7. Evaluation: Collection of survey data from volunteers and staff for analysis and report by evaluator.


6. Key learnings

Ensure you use the right kind of 3D modelling technique for your volunteers and objects

For objects that are smaller than two metres, use photogrammetry. For objects larger than 2 metres or for larger spaces, use Lidar. iPads are good/simple devices for volunteers with no previous 3D digital modelling/photography experience.

Ensure you and your volunteers understand the limitations of 3D digital modelling

Objects that model well are those that are colourful and/or have significant texture and depth. Objects that don’t model well are those that are reflective, lacking in a variety of colours, depth, and smooth/without texture.

Check out how national museums are sharing their 3D digital models

Adapt templates used by institutions like the British Museum and Science Museum for writing interpretation to accompany the object and always include an ID number in order to locate the ‘real’ object should a researcher wish to view it.

Create a compelling theme for your volunteering

Our volunteers were attracted to the project by working with objects from a local shipwreck collection. It was the theme, its associated human stories, and crucially, the ability to share the digital re-creations of the collection that inspired them.


7. Key challenges

A proportion of your collection items may not be suitable for 3D digital modelling

Technology for making 3D models is continually improving but be prepared to experiment to find out which type of object will best produce a 3D digital model as Polycam app supplies little information on why the production of a 3D digital model has failed.

Volunteers who make 3D digital models need particular skills

Patience, close focus, and a willingness to experiment for the process of 3D digital modelling: there can be a significant amount of uncertainty in the successful production of a 3D digital model.

Writing interpretation for 3D digital models of objects

You may have little information to write your interpretation for the object you have modelled. Some volunteers really enjoy the detective work in researching objects and are great at reaching out to other organisations or experts in their field. You can also ask publicly for more information on an object if there is a paucity of it.


8. Useful links

Social media channels


More help here

A young woman with long blonde hair using Polycam app on an iPad and an iPad pro to create a 3D model.

Video: Earl of Abergaveny project, Portland Museum

The Portland Museum is dedicated to working with its local community to protect and promote the unique heritage of the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Over the past five years, the museum has used advances in digital technology across the arts and heritage sectors to create new ways for people to engage with its collections. The museum used its Earl of Abergaveny Collection to train and support volunteers to produce 3D digital models of shipwreck items from this collection to create a digital archive.

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What implications and opportunities should we consider when using 3D scanning or printing to create 3D digital models from our collections?

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Published: 2023

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Creating 3D digital models of museum collection objects (2023) by Portland Museum supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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