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New camera records 360 view of Steele history

New camera records 360 view of Steele history
Steele County Historical Society director Kellen Hinrichsen shows how the new 360-degree camera captures images. He’s using the device to document the interiors of historic buildings. Staff photo by Joni Hubred
Joni Hubred, News Editor

A new piece of modern technology has given the Steele County Historical Society (SCHS) a way to digitally preserve its historic buildings.

Director Kellen Hinrichsen said the Theta Z1 camera captures 360° images. It’s a smaller version of the cameras Google uses to map cities.

“With this, we can preserve not only the structure, but the interior history,” he said.

SCHS maintains 19 historic buildings in the Village of Yesteryear, along with the Orphanage Museum and Cottage 11 and exhibits inside the Steele County History Center. It took Hinrichsen just a couple of hours to capture the Yesteryear buildings and walking path.

Next week, he meets with Owatonna Public Schools officials to talk about how to document the interior of Owatonna High School; a new high school building is scheduled to open in fall of 2023.

“I’ve always been into digitization of museums,” Hinrichsen said. “That’s what my master's thesis was on."

The project, which he said will be ongoing, aligns with the SCHS mission and was “not pricey, but not something we budgeted for.”

Hinrichsen looked for grant opportunities and found one in Rochester-based Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation. The private funder includes historic preservation among its areas of interest.

While the virtual views of SCHS buildings are “nowhere near the same as getting a guided tour,” Hinrichsen said, it will make Steele County history available to supporters who can’t take a physical tour or who live in other states and other countries. 

“The fact that they can see it now is kinda neat,” he said.

Not all the images will make it onto the website, however. Public buildings aren’t a problem, but it will be up to the school district, for instance, to decide what happens with the high school images.

Hinrichsen would also like to capture the interior of the historic National Farmers' Bank of Owatonna (now Wells Fargo), and those images would likely remain private for security reasons, he said. He has also talked with Owatonna Arts Center creative director Silvan Durben about capturing some area homes that have artistic significance.

The camera will create JPEG and RAW files. The latter don’t lose data the same way compressed JPEG images do.

Still, capturing digital images comes with no guarantee for the future. As technology changes, not only can items degrade, but the technology to display them may become obsolete.

Footage on a VHS tape, for instance, becomes less accessible as VHS players disappear. And CDs, once thought to be a reliable vehicle, can start to degrade in 20 years.

“Sadly, it’s one of those things where we do the best we can,” Hinrichsen said. “We are at a point where we know the issues and can plan better.”

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