One of the most exciting applications of 3D printing today for those museum lovers and history aficionados out there is the notion of scanning and printing historical and cultural objects. Since 3D scanning and photogrammetry has been democratized by companies like Autodesk with their free 123D Catch software, pretty much anyone can digitize the physical world. And it’s probably only going to get easier.
With a newfangled push towards the digitization and 3D printing of museum objects, one can only imagine the level of personal investment with physical history that could result after physically handling something like an accurate 3D replica of a Ming dynasty vase. Jennifer Trant and Bruce Wyman, in their study on social tagging at the steve.museum, discovered that visitors tended to interact with artifacts in a more personally emotional way when they were encouraged to describe and interpret objects at a museum as a community.
The Smithsonian has already begun to assemble a workable 3D museum gallery with the help of (once again) Autodesk, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to choose from a slew of priceless national artifacts and print their favorite at home. With a huge collection in storage (reportedly 1% of the total artifacts in their possession are displayed at any given time), this could give unprecedented exposure to fascinating objects that rarely see the light of day. Similar to the effect of social tagging in museums, it is likely that being able to directly interact with historical could create a valuable bond between the visitor and the artifact, as well as a more profound ability to empathize with the object’s original significance and purpose.
3D scanning and printing could also be a boon to the practice of lending between museums. Currently an expensive, laborious, and lengthy process, simply exchanging a 3D scan or print of an artifact could offer museum-goers the opportunity to view objects that they would normally have to travel thousands of miles to see (forget about holding it).
Archaeology, a field of study that contributes substantially to museum collections, has also begun to benefit from the use of 3D printing and scanning. Damaged or incomplete artifacts can be reproduced digitally and printed for study and display. Harvard University’s Semitic Museum has already reproduced a broken ceramic lion from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi dating to the second millennium B.C. Designers Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow have demonstrated how 3D printing can be used to model and reconstruct possible use methods of ancient artifacts by creating handles and mounts for traditional stone tools. Reference collections, vast artifact identification aids that take years of painstaking work to collect and maintain, have only recently begun to be digitized and made available online. These collections often only consist of 2D photos that are hard to sort through, and hard to visualize in 3D space, which often jeopardizes the accuracy of the archaeologist’s identification. Collections like these are also ripe for 3D scanning and printing.
Companies like Artifacts Teach have capitalized on the notion that artifact digitization has exciting potential in the education space as well. Being able to look at and manipulate important historical and cultural artifacts in 3D space could allow students to feel more connected to the real remnants of the historical periods they study, and help better retain the information presented to them.
Even the Department of Defense has gotten involved with these efforts to 3D scan and print artifacts, as demonstrated by their Legacy program to protect and preserve cultural resources in the US.
Though this application of 3D scanning and printing could bring more attention and understanding to the global physical past, there are a few questions that still remain as to the ethics of making culturally sensitive objects available for anyone to replicate and use in their own homes. Additionally, if the majority of museum collections are made available for viewing and printing online, will people continue to visit museums at all?
Regardless, the benefits of this technological application are undeniable. How do you think 3D tech could change the traditional museum landscape, as well as our experiences with historical artifacts?