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How are some of the world’s best known Museums doing amazing things with 3D Printing?

3D printing seems to have taken the world by storm in the last few years. This shows no sign of slowing as the technology continues to evolve and the price of 3d printers continues to fall. But how are museums using 3D Printing and what can if offer our visitors?

What is 3D printing and what can it be used for?

3D printing is the process of making a physical, three-dimensional object from a digital model. New designs can be created, or existing objects can be scanned and reproduced.

This technology has a huge array of potential applications. These range from the aerospace industry and vehicle production to medical procedures. A Bristol-based company has even developed a 3D-printed artificial arm, approved by doctors. 3D printing is becoming more accessible as the price of the technology falls. 3D printers are now available to buy online at a lower price than ever before.

3d printing in museums

How can 3D printing be applied to the museum sector?

For Museums looking for ways to make their collections more accessible, 3D printing could be an excellent tool. For example, replicas of artefacts can now be produced and taken outside of museums. This could lead to some exciting outreach projects. 3D printing also has the potential to help exhibitions come to life. It can provide a more tactile experience for the museum visitor. This could be a game changer for people with visual impairments, as it allows them to touch artefacts.

3d printed objects

Another useful application is in the field of conservation. Pieces that need to be handled with care can be reproduced. This allows for close examination without causing any damage to the originals. Items that are too fragile for display can be stored safely, while a replica takes their place. Damaged artefacts can even be recreated. This is done by scanning fragments and putting them back together digitally, before printing a ‘fixed’ model. Museums can display these side-by-side to give a better idea of how the object looked before.

There are many museums around the world already embracing 3D printing. Curators have been exploring how it can add value to their collections. Here are five different examples of 3D printing projects that museums have been involved with. These show the scope and potential of this new technology.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A has a history of working with Great Ormand Street Hospital for Children. The hospital views interaction with art and art projects as a key part of enhancing the patient experience. It reduces stress and anxiety for both staff and patients. In April 2018, the V&A worked with GOSH Arts on a new project.

They used 3D printing to take some sculptures out of the museum and into the hospital. The project worked with children in an isolation ward, who were awaiting bone marrow transplants. Because of the nature of the treatment, contact with others is limited. This can be very frustrating for the young patients. Museum staff used Windows tablets to take 3D scans of the sculptures to the children’s bedsides. Patients were able to interact with the digital models and use them as a base for their own designs. The finished projects were then printed in 3D in the playroom for the children to see and feel.

Talking about the project, Alex Flowers from the V&A said “Taking the museum out of the walls of South Kensington to those who can’t make a visit is so important for making sure that culture and our collections are accessible to everyone…Visits to hospitals can be scary times for both patients and their families and by bringing in creative activity we want to create a meaningful distraction and engagement.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Met have been actively encouraging visitors to interact with collections digitally. Visitors can photograph objects in the museum and then create their own digital models. The Met even posted a guide on their website which shows people how to do this. The post recommends which software to use as well as signposting online tutorials. They also talk through the process of purchasing a 3D printer or kit, or using a 3D printing service.

3D Printing at The Met

For those who don’t want to have a go at making their own scans, there are now over 70 3D models available online from the Met’s collection. This includes sculptures, statues and furniture. Members of the public are free to download these and interact with them as they please. They can use them to as part of their own creative process, exploring or redesigning them. Though the majority of people will not have access to a 3D printer, there are many companies who offer 3D printing on demand.

The Met has always encouraged artists to interact with and reimagine the museum’s collection. They first allowed artists to re-create works of art on display in 1872. Although this project uses new technology it is the same concept. As part of the introduction to the online collection, the Met says, “We encourage everyone to use our content, which represents the world’s cultural heritage, to create their own creative works.”

The Science Museum, London

3D printing already has a huge influence on the medical world. There is potential for 3D printed organs, prosthetic limbs and even reconstructive surgery. The Science Museum has acquired some interesting new objects which will go on display as part of their new Medicine Galleries in 2019.

Science museum London is using 3d printing

In 2016, a surgeons at Guys and St. Thomas hospital created a 3D printed model of a kidney as part of an innovative transplant procedure. Three-year-old Lucy Boucher needed a transplant and her father donated a kidney for the procedure. 3D scans were taken both of the healthy kidney and of Lucy’s abdomen. The 3D models give an extra layer of safety to the complex operation. They helped surgeons to plan things like where to make the incision, and the best fit of the kidney. Seeing the models also gave the family a chance to understand the procedure.

The 3D models that were made have now been handed over to the Science Museum by Lucy and her family. The models will help the Science Museum tell a narrative as part of the Medicine Galleries. 3D printing of organs and body parts could be an interesting addition to medical collections such as this. Seeing 3D models of things inside the body can them seem more real and understandable.

The Manacor Museum of History, Spain

The Manacor Museum is located on the island of Mallorca and dates back to 1908. The museum holds archaeological, ethnographic and industrial collections. They have used 3D printing to enhance the way these are presented to visitors.

In July 2018, they created a new exhibit. This was composed of 3D printed models taken from their collection. 12 objects were on display in total. For visitors, this meant that objects previously behind glass were now available to touch. The exhibition actively encouraged museum-goers to interact with the 3D models, to hold them and feel them. The exhibition has since ended, but the 3D models are available to view online from anywhere in the world.

Projects such as this have the potential to help people to connect with the objects on an extra level and perhaps gain a deeper understanding. The implications for visually impaired visitors are exciting too.

The Semitic Museum, Harvard University

The use of 3D printing could have huge implications in the field of conservation. Artefacts that have been damaged by war, weather or simply the passage of time can be painstakingly pieced back together. This gives both researchers and the public an idea of what they would have looked like.

In 2012, two archaeologists working at the Semitic Museum used 3D modelling and printing to recreate a ceramic lion. The original sculpture was smashed 3,000 years ago during an attack on the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi. The museum holds the fragments in their collection. These were carefully photographed from hundreds of different angles. The images were then used to create a digital model. Because the fragments were not complete, the model had some gaps. This meant that they also needed to use scans of full statues found in the same location. After reconstructing it digitally, they were able to create a 3D printed version for display.

This is an example of how modern technology can help us to connect with the past. It can fill in the gaps and create a bigger picture. Joseph Greene, one of the archaeologists behind the project, said “3-D imaging [with] or without printing is a perfect way to study, conserve, share and teach using objects.”

Are there any potential downsides of 3D printing for museums?

We have seen that there are already many 3D projects in museums which are having a positive impact. However, there are also some potential downsides to consider. Most notably, there are issues around the subjects of copyright and authenticity. The technology can easily produce copies at speed. This means there is an opportunity for mass production of replicas, possibly at a detriment to the original.

Another factor to take into account is that the materials used are not the same as the originals. Although the ability to touch 3D models of artefacts can be a great opportunity, they are often made of cheaper materials. This means that they might not be able to communicate the true feel of the original. Visitors are able to get closer to the objects that ever before, but will something about the essence of the items be lost in translation?

3d printing exhibitions

3D printing has a lot to contribute

Overall, there is a huge list of benefits that can be gained from using this new technology. It gives museums the ability to make collections available to more people. Blind and visually impaired visitors can experience exhibitions in a new way. Curators can have the opportunity to take 3D models out to schools, hospitals, retirement homes and more. This will help to reach people who might not otherwise visit the museum. 3D printing can also be used as an extra method of preserving and safeguarding collections.

This technology can help with education, conservation and research. When used alongside existing tools and expertise, 3D printing can add great value to a museum collection.

About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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