The SY Carola’s distinctive red and black hull, topped by a golden yellow funnel, floats against a dark background.

With a flick of the hand, the historic vessel – built in 1898 on the north banks of the Clyde – spins 180 degrees, revealing a stern that juts above the propeller’s curved blades and a large, semi-circular rudder.

Zoom in and it’s possible to examine her decaying deckhouse. There, a fragile-looking banister guides the viewer’s eye along the upper edge of a staircase leading down into the boat’s bowels.

Such detail would not normally be available to those visiting the Carola’s final resting place at the Scottish Maritime Museum.

But now, thanks to technology, every last stain, bolt and rust patch on what is believed to be world’s oldest seagoing steam yacht can be scrutinised at any time and from the comfort of home.

She is one of several vessels captured as part of a landmark 3D scanning project that was spearheaded by some of the world’s leading cultural organisations, including the revered Smithsonian Institution in the US and the National Gallery of Denmark. Experts at Dundee University Museum Collections were also involved.

The result of their work is a huge online store offering the public free, unrestricted access to hundreds of models through the Sketchfab content-sharing platform.

As well as the Carola, there are images of MV Spartan, the only surviving Scottish-built “puffer”, and RNLB Jane Anne, a rare surviving example of a double-ended, self-righting lifeboat which is hugely important to the Maritime Museum’s local community of Irvine.

Staff at Dundee University, meanwhile, scanned specimens preserved in its globally famous zoological collection.

Among the overseas items featured are the Smithsonian’s Apollo 11 Columbia command module, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull from the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life and a fourth century BC sculpture held by the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Marta Pilarska, 3D Digitisation Project Manager at the Maritime Museum, said the models would create an entirely new relationship with members of the public.

“All of a sudden ... we have this digital output that can serve not only as a condition-monitoring tool but is also visually appealing,” she explained.

“We can use it to engage with the public and allow online visitors to explore our collection in a new way. One of the benefits of this – particularly if you’re talking about vessels such as MV Spartan and SY Carola – is that while visiting the Museum in Irvine one can view the vessels from the outside, but access to interiors is restricted.

“Immersive virtual tours, based on 360-degree imaging, enabled us to make those areas accessible.”

However, the technical challenges were significant.

“We’ve had to move quickly through a big but rewarding learning curve,” said Ms Pilarska.

“3D laser scanning and photogrammetry are the two main techniques used in digital recording of heritage sites and objects.

"Photogrammetry is the one used more often in the museum sector, as it is regarded as being easier and more budget-friendly. In short, it comes down to taking hundreds of images from all around the object and processing them in a software capable of recognising distinctive features of these objects and … digitally reconstructing the object’s geometry. Based on that, the 3D model is built.

"Laser scanning, on the other hand, guarantees high accuracy and is considered a standard 3D surveying method.

“Whenever a laser beam sent from the scanner hits the surface of the object and returns to the sensor, it is recorded as a precise measurement. Scanners send and record millions of such beams during data capture and all of them are stored as points in 3D space, or point clouds. Those point clouds are then what underpins the accurate 3D model."

Ms Pilarska hopes the scans will become a huge online draw while the Maritime Museum itself is closed under coronavirus lockdown measures.

But the project, she stressed, was not solely about boosting interaction with the public. Building up detailed information about the vessels themselves was another key aim.

“Having an accurate record of the museum collection was one of two reasons to have this project happen,” she said. “Public access is the second.

“Creating detailed documentation of museum collections has always been one of the fundamentals of curators’ work, and 3D documentation feels like the next step that the sector will take with advancements in technology.”

Over at Dundee University, Dr Caroline Erolin and her students scanned specimens from the world-famous D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum. Among the more unusual and exotic contributions are a sea turtle carapace, a pencil urchin and a rhinoceros hindfoot.

For Ms Erolin, a senior lecturer in medical art, questions over how much of the university’s collection would be posted touched on a growing debate around ensuring that public access to artefacts does not come at the expense of a proper appreciation of their origin.

“There’s a movement to say that everything should be totally open access and rights-free for the public,” she said.

“The counter argument is that objects can then be viewed and shared without anything about their cultural context, where they have come from.

“We wanted to take part but not put the whole collection up online and make the entire thing open access.

“So we put 10 objects online, totally open access, and around another 40 more under a ‘non-commercial, attribution, share-alike’ licence, although people like members of the general public can still download those if they want to.

“We will see how that goes and may make more open access in the future.”

Ms Erolin said the availability of the Sketchfab store felt particularly important as the coronavirus lockdown continues and Scots look for sources of mental stimulation at home.

“It definitely has value terms of public outreach,” she added.

“Matthew Jarron, the museum curator, was quite keen because [the museum] is campus-based and it’s not open to the public that often.

“We thought it would be nice to have certain specimens more accessible on a permanent basis.

“Members of the public can download the scanned images free, then 3D print them. So there are multiple aspects of it from a public engagement point of view.

“Of course, this was before coronavirus and so it’s timely to have that different means of access.

“Even when the museum is open, it’s maybe a bit harder for some people – the disabled, for example - to access it, so it just widens access in the general sense.”

It is also possible the store will continue growing.

“I don’t know if we will realistically scan everything," she said. "But perhaps, with an internship, we will have someone coming in and doing a few more scans and plan to keep building it up.”