TAMPA — Technology of the future is making the past more accessible than ever through the efforts of a team from the University of South Florida libraries.
Among its projects, the group has digitally scanned every inch of St. Augustine's Castillo de San Marco, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, and four Native American ceremonial mounds maintained by St. Petersburg's Parks and Recreation Department.
The work offers a new way to see whether efforts to preserve these archeological sites are successful — and opens them to a wider audience through online tours expected later this year.
"We've done work in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Armenia, France and Greece," said Lori Collins, with the USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections.
And now, the group is focusing its three-dimensional laser scanning technology closer to home — the collection of the Tampa Bay History Center.
Every few months for the past 18 months, members have visited the downtown center to scan selections from its 80,000 artifacts.
One example is an 18th century gunpowder horn adorned with an intricate sketch of St. Augustine scenery, now locked behind glass but soon available for close-up inspection through a digital replica.
Another example: Exhibits come and go at museums like the History Center, but they're now being preserved for digital viewing — some, already available on the center's website — so they'll never really go away.
Then there's the military coat buttons from Tampa's 19th century Fort Brook and limestone blocks bearing logos used by lithographers to create cigar labels when Tampa was the cigar capital of the world.
"We now have the tools to tell our stories in different ways," said C.J. Roberts, the History Center's chief executive. "This is exciting."
In the coming months, more of the center's collection will be available for viewing at the museum's website. The free tour will never replicate the experience of an in-person visit — admission, $14.95 — but online visitors will be able to maneuver certain three-dimensional scans and explore every angle and inch of an artifact.
The scans might also be used to create 3D replicas so visitors to the museum and students at schools can handle them.
"There are so many different things you can do with the same set of data," said Travis Doering, who along with Collins heads the effort for the USF group. "It depends on what you want."
The St. Augustine horn, once used as a container for gun powder, showcases the possibilities, the center's Roberts said.
It's an historic artifact, available to look at but not touch, so visitors find it difficult to fully appreciate the intricate artistry — the military barracks and the shipping wharf, for example, that once were features of the oldest European settlement in the continental United States.
"Even if we put a mirror behind it," Roberts said, "you can still only see the front and back."
So USF scanned the horn, enabling viewers to click a mouse and zoom in on sections of it and pull up associated lessons in history. What's more, the horn has been digitally unrolled so the art can be viewed as a flat canvas.
Sometime this year, Roberts said, the history center hopes to add touch screens to selected exhibits so more artifacts can be viewed in this way.
Another digital attraction may also be coming to the History Center from USF.
The historic 1970s-era skate park known as the original Bro Bowl, demolished in 2015 has also been digitally preserved — complete with graffiti — so that one day museum visitors might be able to virtually skate the attraction.
Independent of its partnership with USF, the History Center is also scanning its collection of more than 6,000 maps plotting state and local history back to the 15th century. The maps, some already online, are invaluable to scholarly research but they have a practical application, too: Potential home buyers can see the history of how a property has been used.
"It could have once been a swamp," said History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell. "So it is not as stable as you're being told."
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