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Detailed 3D scans give everyone a view into the artistic creation of the Vimy Monument

We get a look at a new digital project bringing life to the models used to make Vimy.

Ottawa has the good fortune to be home to many museums. The national museums contain scores of the country’s treasures, objects that connect us to our past. But that also makes some of this inaccessible, to a degree, to the rest of the country. 

At the eastern tip of the Canadian War Museum, in the Moriyama Regeneration Hall, sit 12 plaster casts, the templates for the marble of the Vimy Memorial. With names like Truth, Charity, Peace, Breaking of the Sword, and Sacrifice, they sit on display with a framed view of the Peace Tower in the distance.

The maquettes, as they’re known, are the raw forms for what would become the statues on the monument. They were cast from the original clay models by artist Walter S. Allward, originally carved between 1925 and 1930. Once completed, they were shipped to France, where stone carvers measured and reproduced them at double their size to create the final statues which now adorn the soaring Vimy Memorial at the site of the battle.

Breaking the Sword up close. Image courtesy of CANADIGM ©️2024

Now, those maquettes are viewable in all their minute details from your computer or phone. It’s an up close window into the artistic process that led to one of the country’s most revered memorials. The project, named Allward, is viewable on both mobile and desktop.

“Our initiative celebrates the enduring legacy of the Vimy Memorial and visionary sculptor Walter S. Allward,” Vimy Foundation chair Carolyn Patton said. “This innovative approach promises immersive digital experiences, allowing users to explore the intricate details of symbolism of our sculptures like never before.”

You can explore the Allward project yourself here, and get an up-close view of each of the maquettes that became the Vimy Monument’s  marble figures.

The massive project has been done in collaboration between the museums, the Vimy Foundation and Canadigm, and produced 3D models of each of the maquettes in exquisite detail.

On the backs of the casts you can see fingerprints and hand streaks, where Allward worked the statues into shape. You can also see tool markings where French artisans took measurements using a tool known as a pantograph. 

But beyond the intimate details of creation, are the details of the statues themselves. The faces and fingers of the figures can be zoomed in on rotated and seen in all their specificity.

Breaking the Sword at the Canadian War Museum. Robert Hiltz/Ottawa Lookout

On the monument, many of the statues are at ground level, but eight of them are atop the two great pylons, rising some 30 metres into the sky. This project puts them within digital reach.

Where the Vimy memorial itself rises above the ridge both glorious and mournful, a monument to both the great human cost, but also the eventual victory of Canada and the allies. The maquettes offer none of that glory. At life size, and unattached from the twin marble spires, they portray only anguish and the struggle to comprehend the immense loss of the war. Some 61,000 Canadians were killed, and another 172,000 wounded in the conflict, according to the museum.

Seventeen of them sit at the far eastern tip of the Canadian War Museum, the other three at the Military Communications and Electronics Museum in Kingston. 

The museum offers resources to schools across the country to teach students about the country’s military history. The First World War tends to be a focus in the classrooms, the museum’s director of exhibitions Glenn Ogden told the Lookout. 

“It allows us to get more of our collection in front of Canadians in a very unique way, in this way, getting very close to seeing it in person,” Ogden said.

With these scans, it opens up a world of possibilities for what can be done with other parts of the collection. “Whenever we look at a project or initiative like this, it allows us as an institution to refresh our own knowledge of this material as well look again at it closely.”

“That's the great thing about having the scans, it allows us to say, ‘What could we use this for that's different?’ ” he said. It gives the museum new opportunities “to interpret what we have here at the museum, or create some other type of experience.”

The scanning itself was undertaken by Canadigm, a volunteer group comprising specialists from millwrights to photographers, to digital scanning experts. The team has spent much of its time scanning the interiors of tunnels dug across the Western Front, making a permanent digital record of the artwork Canadian soldiers carved into the walls.

They make their own equipment (hence the millwright), and have a unique set of skills and familiarity with the subject to make them perfect for this project. It took hundreds of hours of work — plus coding time for the website — to scan and process each of the maquettes. They use lasers and photographs compiled together to make their detailed models. 

All of their scanning equipment is custom-made, and the scans require a dedicated system. The data of the scan of the largest of the maquettes, Breaking the Sword, was itself 111 gigabytes (GB), A base model iPhone, for example, is only equipped with 64 GB of storage. 

Each scanning job is its own challenge. Whether it’s scanning engravings on the roof of a cave 14 feet high, or having a scanner manuverable enough to get into the tight spaces of the hollow back of a maquette, Canadigm makes precision tools for the job. 

The Vimy Monument from afar. Robert Hiltz/Ottawa Lookout

The process was a delicate one. The plaster casts are nearly a century old, and needed to be carefully moved into the adjoining hall so that they could be properly scanned, before being brought back into where they’re displayed. They’re made out of plaster and wood. 

Peering into them made Canadigm’s artistic and executive director Zenon Andrusyszyn wonder how they were constructed so as to last nearly a century.

“It's the way that [Allward] put the armatures together, I would love to have an x-ray and see whether that has been wrapped around and then plastered over top of that. You don't see nails here anywhere, maybe in a couple of spots,” Andrusyszyn said, pointing to details of one of the maquettes. “But it's the actual structure itself into the thickness of the wood, the bracing that goes across the crown so it doesn't twist or warp. That’s what I find really interesting about this whole thing.”

In many ways, it’s remarkable there are maquettes that exist at all. The plaster casts used to make statues typically aren’t kept. They’re discarded or perhaps recycled. But in this case, all of them survived the trip to France and the return journey home.

Now, nearly a century later, you can get up close with them, whether you head to the War Museum, or sit at your desk.