How big is that?

As part of the work we’ve done on the new Waddesdon Bequest Explorer with the British Museum, we made a widget which depicts the volume of an object (as a cuboid), next to a tennis ball for scale, and thought that other people might be able to use it. So, we’ve extracted it into a public Github repository called dimension-drawer.

This seems like a small thing, but it can be hard to get a sense of how big a museum object is, when looking at its photo online – especially when that photo is artfully shot on a black background.

Luckily for us, ‘dimensions’ of an object are one bit of metadata that museums routinely store across their entire collection. I suspect this is mainly for practical purposes (“how big a box will I need to transport this object in?”), as there would will little point in displaying it on a label in gallery, when you can look at the real thing.

The tool outputs the drawing as SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), an XML based format which works in most modern browsers (even Internet Explorer). You can even style it using regular ol’ CSS.

The cuboid in the diagram is drawn using the ‘Cabinet Projection’, which is a sort of fake 3D with parallel lines (instead of a vanishing point). This made the Maths easier (I dusted off my school-age memory of Trigonometry), and also seemed like a pleasing throwback to the age of the collection. (Cabinet Projection was traditionally in technical drawing by furniture makers).

Why a tennis ball? The size was right for our purposes (some of the objects are smaller, some bigger), we thought a tennis ball would be universally recognisable, and it’s simple to draw. We’ve already had a request for the option of displaying a rugby ball instead though!

You can see how it looks for a collection of almost 300 objects in the new Waddesdon Bequest collection explorer we made for the British Museum.

We’ve published the Ruby code behind the tool as a gem, so that other people can use it. There are instructions on the GitHub page.

I’m sure there’s lots of ways the code could be improved, or new features added, so if you have any ideas, get in touch.

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