A person holds a black 3D scanner. A sculpture of a pug dog and the bust of an unknown person are seated on the table.
VCU alumnae Mason Smith 3D scans the pug dog sculpture from the collection of the Isle of Wight County Museum. (Photo courtesy of Bernard Means)

Stuck at home? A VCU lab can help you build 3D cardboard replicas — like one of the world’s oldest ham.

The university’s Virtual Curation Laboratory is providing fun, educational activities — including constructing replicas of a mastodon tooth, a giant beaver skull and even an Egyptian mummy.

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With everyone stuck at home during the pandemic, many families are looking for entertaining and educational activities. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory has a suggestion: Why not construct a 3D replica of the world’s oldest ham out of Amazon delivery boxes?

The lab, part of the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, specializes in 3D scanning of historic and archaeological artifacts and fossils and the 3D printing of replicas for hands-on learning. As COVID-19 silenced its 3D printers, the lab expanded its long-standing efforts to post online — for free download — a vast array of 3D-scanned artifacts and fossils that can be used for at-home teaching and learning.

Along with the world’s oldest ham — which is part of the collection of the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield — the lab has made available plans for 3D cardboard replicas of items such as a mastodon tooth owned by Benjamin Franklin from the collection of the U.S. National Park Service’s Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, a giant beaver skull from the New York State Museum, and a reconstruction of the Egyptian mummy Nesiur from the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Ohio.

Meanwhile, VCU student Adriana Brown, who is interning in the lab this spring, has been creating coloring pages based off 3D-scanned artifacts and fossils, such as a marsupial lion skull from the New York State Museum and also the world’s oldest ham from the Isle of Wight County Museum.

“I needed a way to make our many 3D-scanned objects from museums across the world still accessible to people who wanted something physical with which to interact. Coloring pages were a quick solution. Most people have regular printers in their homes,” said Bernard Means, Ph.D., director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory and an assistant professor of anthropology. “Teachers and kids could easily download coloring pages, and look at the models we have on [3D content sharing platform] Sketchfab to guide them in their efforts, or be free with their imagination.”


Since most people don’t have a 3D printer, Means turned to 3D cardboard model plans as a way to make it easier for families to make their own at-home, hands-on projects.

“I realized that almost everyone has lots of cardboard these days — I know I do from all the deliveries made to my house,” Means said. “So, drawing on artifacts and fossils we have 3D scanned over the years, I used specialized computer models to slide digital files into cardboard patterns.”

Brown, a junior anthropology major, said she feels immense pride knowing that her work can benefit children and families who are in their homes during the pandemic, and she has enjoyed making the coloring pages because it combines two things she is passionate about: exploring culture through objects and artistic expression.

“I think the biggest point of pride comes from knowing that children, however young they may be, may develop an interest in archaeology or anthropology in general that will blossom into rewarding future endeavors,” she said.

“Having something physical like a coloring page or a cardboard model that can be built, manipulated and examined has the potential to make individuals, especially children, feel as though they are a part of something as great as historical preservation and curation,” Brown added. “In my opinion, there are many valuable lessons that can be taught by allowing children to see and touch history and culture through their own developing minds in place of solely teaching them through presentations and textbooks.”

“This project will hopefully remind people that the museum is still here and dedicated to preserving history, connecting that history to them and doing it in an innovative way,” she said. “Dr. Means is amazing, and we are always happy to have him cross our threshold. Even if it is just virtually. The way he connects history and technology to pop culture and current events is incredibly innovative and on point. Especially as these projects appeal to all ages.”

A black and white coloring page with the figure of a ham.
A coloring page of the world's oldest ham, part of the collection of the Isle of Wight County Museum, created by VCU student Adriana Brown.

In addition to the world’s oldest ham, the lab is offering a cardboard template based off 3D scans of a 1920s-era pug dog sculpture that once held lollipops at a country store that is also part of the Isle of Wight County Museum’s collection.

Robert S. Feranec, Ph.D., curator of Pleistocene vertebrate paleontology and curator of mammalogy for the New York State Museum, said the project is “fantastic and really clever, particularly at this time, during the pandemic, since it can be easily done at home.”

“I’m especially excited that Dr. Means is using the New York State Museum ice age fossils as tools to highlight [science, technology, engineering, arts and math],” he said. “Fossils get people excited about learning science, and the coloring pages and cardboard models can be enjoyable for people of all ages. He’s taking a very complex technological tool and making it understandable and accessible to everyone.”

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources also praised the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s efforts. Public information officer Randall Jones said the lab’s work during the pandemic fit within the department’s goal of making the public more aware of Virginia’s historic legacies and encouraging and promoting public history.

“[Means’] work is even more valuable during this time of mandated isolation, when parents and teachers are scrambling for online resources that can engage children and students in learning,” Jones said. “The cardboard cutouts that allow people to construct a specific artifact is just a brilliant way to engage kids in an activity that is fun but quietly educational.”

Jill Krieg-Accrocco is curator of anthropology and exhibitions for the Dayton Society of Natural History, the parent organization of the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery. She said digitizing collections and creating virtual content has long been a priority for museums, but it’s more important than ever in the pandemic.

“With museums, science centers and universities physically closed, we have to get creative,” she said. “My place of work, the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, has created a YouTube channel and we are developing a new virtual Summer Camp in a Box program. VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab is doing an amazing job making collections accessible to people around the world.”

Museum collections exist to be used for research, display and education, Krieg-Accrocco said. Efforts like the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s project is making that mission possible, even amid COVID-19.

“While this pandemic has been extremely challenging for us all, these new ways of developing and delivering educational content are very exciting,” she said. “I see it as a silver lining and I can’t wait to see what new items VCU puts out next.”