We often get asked why we set up CHI as a nonprofit. I can understand the question, because we are doing some pretty high-tech projects, and we work with a number of famous institutions whose names people recognize, perhaps making us seem grander and better endowed than we really are.
My background is in computer science, and I worked in software product development for years. At some point I had decided I wanted to apply my skills to “make the world a better place.”
Mark had similar leanings. His background was in philosophy and studio arts, primarily sculpture. He began looking into 3D modeling and laser scanning in the late ’80s, and by the mid-1990s he was teaching the subject. I had a minor in sculpture and ceramics. We both loved history, art, and archaeology. We had met in 1983 and married in 1989. By the late ‘90s, digital cameras were coming into play, and structured light scanning technology was becoming available for 3D capture.
Mark and I got fired up. We started seeking out people who worked in archaeology or museums to better understand their needs. Our first questions were: What did they wish to do that they couldn’t do in the field? Could the emerging imaging technologies help them in research and creating access to more cultural material?
Over time, and as we learned more, the seeds of CHI took root in us. By 2002 we began to imagine how existing and emerging technologies could be used to create robust, powerful, low-cost tools to document cultural heritage objects and collections. And so we formed Cultural Heritage Imaging.
Today, well over 10 years after we started our nonprofit, we remain committed to fostering the improvement, availability and adoption of these documentary tools. We see them as “democratizing technology,” because our vision is founded on making cultural and natural science techniques and materials available to people all over the world.
Many of our collaborations are only possible because we are a nonprofit. “Pulling on the same oar” for humanity’s benefit is a powerful reward. Our nonprofit status is attractive to top researchers and organizations who are drawn to work on and contribute to saving history. These experts are sometimes willing to help for very little money, and occasionally they even raise their own grant funding. Our open source approach is inclusive and allows others to add new features to the tools, moving the whole community forward.
The downside of this commitment to openness is there is a constant need to raise money, and much of the money we get is earmarked for specific purposes. It’s great to get funding for a project we want to do, like the National Endowment for the Humanities Start-up grant we recently received. However, many of the requirements of running the organization and fostering community growth are not covered by the grant funds.
Funding is critical! We get a lot of volunteer support, we work with students and professors, we get discount rates from many professionals. We are extremely grateful for this help and it makes an enormous difference. At the end of the day, we rely on the good graces of our donors to keep us, and the community, going.