Class of 2019: A passion for preservation combines technology and university history
Virginia Tech senior art history major Elizabeth Berg is using drones, photogrammetry, and her love of preservation to recreate former Corps of Cadets residences Monteith and Thomas halls. The two buildings were demolished in the summer of 2017 as a part of a redesign of the Upper Quad.
“I have friends who lived in those buildings. I think people should remember them,” Berg said. “A lot of my friends are in the corps, and it’s a really important part of their college experience and the school’s history. My grandfather, Phillip Keister, was also a member of the corps for a year while at Virginia Tech. I want to make sure this program and these halls are highlighted.”
Berg reached out to Todd Ogle, executive director of applied research in immersive environments and simulations at the University Libraries, to discuss an independent study with him to create an app that features a virtual 3D visualization of the building. Berg brought the challenge and Ogle provided direction and taught her programming and technology behind virtual environments.
Through this experience with Ogle, she used drones and photogrammetry to build a visualization that pieces together the halls’ history.
“She is getting to do many things outside of her curricular wheelhouse,” Ogle said. “Collaboration is key to helping students find their passion.”
The University Libraries offers drone lending through a partnership with the Virginia Tech Drone Park. This partnership and access to emerging technology made this high-level artistic and technology-centered project possible.
“We needed to create an accurate picture of the space as it is now. We used technology called photogrammetry to piece together 280 images taken by Gregory Calbert, safety officer and manager of the drone park. The data is like puzzle pieces, and you have to find the best fit for the best picture,” Berg said. “I am also planning to incorporate historical photos of the residence halls. So the app users will be able to get a full picture of what the area once was and the meaning behind those buildings.”
Berg’s passion for preservation of buildings and structures was inspired by fellow Hokie and Disney employee Chris Pajonk ’10. They met while Berg was participating in the Disney College Program in Orlando.
“A classmate of mine from the Highty-Tighties reached out to introduce me to Elizabeth while she was in Orlando,” Pajonk said. “He mentioned she was interested in curation, preservation, and digital archiving. She definitely came prepared and knew what she was talking about. You could see this was definitely a passion for her.”
Since 2015, Pajonk has worked for the Show Documentation Library in Disney’s Ride and Show Engineering Department. He helps maintain records to refurbish or recreate the buildings, vehicles, show sets, audio-animatronics, and graphic elements of Walt Disney World.
With a bachelor’s degree in history and a concentration on the history of science, technology, and engineering, Pajonk said his mix of interests in liberal arts and technology fit his career choice.
“I took the foundations in technology, materials, and manufacturing processes that I enjoyed and combined them with the research methods and critical thinking of history and liberal arts to pivot toward a career in museums and libraries — with a soft spot for preservation,” Pajonk said. “Patience and a lot of networking afforded me the chance to do that for Disney.”
Berg and Pajonk share the same passion for preservation.
“Preservation, whether physical or digital, preserves the fingerprint that the subject left on our world long after its expiration date,” Pajonk said. “Having these touchstones of the past to refer to, learn from, and improve upon is imperative to our continued success in a number of fields.
"While not always possible or practical to preserve the object physically, the data collected digitally through scans, detail photos, material samples, or even interviews and blueprints are vital to allowing scientists, researchers, and other enthusiasts of the future to reap the benefits of the object’s existence and the imprint it left on the world,” Pajonk said.
“I met someone who has my dream job!” Berg said. “When I walked into Chris’s office and saw all of the fabric swatches, building plans, paint samples, and photos, I knew that I wanted to be a part of preserving history in this way.”
Berg’s work is also special to Pajonk. “I lived in Monteith Hall from 2006 to 2009. Elizabeth’s project serves the university community by providing alumni the chance to virtually walk through their old residence halls and by recording the architectural, cultural, and historic details of the building as it was during its service,” Pajonk said. “As an educational component, projects like Elizabeth’s pull double duty in contributing to the historical record of the university while teaching students skills that continue to be in demand in fields such as manufacturing, architecture, museums, and beyond.”
Berg will be graduating in May and hopes to use her experience in art history, preservation, and technology to find her niche in the preservation profession. “I hope to continue my work in preservation in a museum or other organization in which I can add an educational aspect to these types of projects,” Berg said. “This is my passion.”