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Analysis out of the box

3D printing at the museum

Analysis out of the boxContemporary Art | As it entered museums, 3D printing quickly proved to be an extraordinary tool for conservation, archival and research activities. With it today, museum institutions also set up new ways of experiencing works of art by actively involving visitors, thus changing the way people perceive artworks.

The V&A Presents ‘‘A World of Fragile Parts‘‘ at the Venice Biennale’s Applied Arts Pavilion - Pauline Borghese, Biennale di Venezia, 2016 © Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
The V&A Presents "A World of Fragile Parts" at the Venice Biennale’s Applied Arts Pavilion - Pauline Borghese, Biennale di Venezia, 2016
© Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Rethinking the role of the replica

During a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you wonder why so many visitors photograph sculptures from all angles, rotating around them by 360 degrees. You end up asking one of them what he will do with these photos, he answers : « I am doing the photogrammetry of the work with 123D Catch, it allows to take a multitude of photos of the work in order to model it and be able to print a replica in 3D. Do you want to make some too? Everything is explained on the museum’s blog, I discovered this a few years ago. »
A little later, you go to the Met’s blog. Indeed, from his first post on 3D printing in October 2013, Don Undeen, senior manager of the Media Lab at the museum’s digital department, explains in detail how to create a 3D print of a work and which application to use for photogrammetry. He also indicates printing platforms, and even explains how to hybridize two sculptures :

Mashup by Jonathan Monaghan of Jacques Sarazin’s “Leda and the Swan” and Balthasar Permoser’s “Marsyas” © Jonathan Monaghan
Mashup by Jonathan Monaghan of Jacques Sarazin’s “Leda and the Swan” and Balthasar Permoser’s “Marsyas”
© Jonathan Monaghan

 » Take Leda and the Swan and Marsyas and create ‘Leda and the Marsyas’, like Jonathan Monaghan did at the Met 3D Hackathon. Once you master the mashups you can get more technical, creating usable models like the ‘Boddhisattva of Infinite Pez Dispension’, by Tony Buser. All of these apps have a bit of a learning curve, but in future articles I’ll walk you through the basics to get started.”
Some scans of works in the museum’s collection are available on Thingiverse, a platform for sharing scan files, and many others are available on the Scan the world platform, which includes scans of works from museums around the world, including the Louvre, the Vatican Museum, the Hermitage, the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 2012, two archaeologists from the Semitic Museum d’Harvard, Joseph Greene and Adam Aja, succeeded in recreating in 3D modelling and printing a Mesopotamian ceramic lion broken into a multitude of fragments 3000 years ago, during an Assyrian attack.

3D printed Nuzi lion replica © Harvard Semitic Museum
3D printed Nuzi lion replica
© Harvard Semitic Museum
They used a high-tech photogrammetry technique that consists of photographing each fragment of the sculpture from all its angles in order to create a 3D rendering of each fragment and be able to gather them. The replica in 3D printing of this lion sculpture is now on display in the museum’s collections.

In 2018, the Victoria and Albert Museum has integrated 3D printed replicas into its new cast courts. In particular, there are three replicas of the famous statue of Pauline Borghese by Antonio Canova (1808, Galleria Borghese, Rome). The first is made of resin painted white and is entirely made by 3D printing, while for the two others, one made of glass and the other of plaster, the casts were printed in 3D to then cast the glass and plaster in the traditional way.

For the exhibition of their collections, some museums provide visitors with 3D printed replicas of the works so that everyone can manipulate them, which is particularly relevant for pottery in order to capture its use and to provide access for visually impaired people. This was initiated by the Vilamuseu in Villajoyosa, a small town in the Alicante region in Spain, followed by the Manacor History Museum in Mallorca for a temporary exhibition in 2018.

3D printing process of a Roman marble herma (bust) of the god Bacchus © Source/Images: Sketchfab
3D printing process of a Roman marble herma (bust) of the god Bacchus
© Source/Images: Sketchfab
These initiatives followed that of the Prado Museum in Madrid in 2015 with Hoy toca el Prado, an exhibition of relief replicas of famous paintings that aimed at offering an experience of works to visually impaired people.

Cultural open source : new life for the museum object

One of the main challenges of 3D printing for museums is to improve conservation, archival and research activities. Pieces that are too fragile to be handled and exposed can be reproduced.
Museums are developing their educational programs around 3D modelling and printing, especially for children.
Their goal : making people take an interest in artworks by approaching them in a way that is not simply contemplative (contemplation reveals on average very short for a typical visitor to the museum : 30 seconds), making them accessible to everyone by taking them out of the museum grounds, and familiarizing audiences with a technology that is changing our relationship to objects.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has set up an educational program for 3D printing of its works for hospitalized children, while the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. is developing the free ARTLAB+ program for teenagers. The Parachute Factory in Las Vegas, New Mexico, is a maker space that brings together academics, museum professionals and other partners for the development of cultural institutions with new technologies.
Museum collection’s scans of works are thus increasingly made freely accessible on the Internet, either on the initiative of museums themselves or by visitors, who now have all the means to scan the works.
In the same vein for the development of cultural open source, the Google Arts and Culture Institute’s « open heritage » project has been developing scans of World Heritage sites since early 2019, making them freely available for teaching and research purposes.

3D printed mockup of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon Temple, Thaïland © Google Arts and Culture 2019
3D printed mockup of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon Temple, Thaïland
© Google Arts and Culture 2019
To produce them, it is collaborating with the non-profit organization CyArk and the American 3D printer Stratasys.

Nunc, me tangere ! New relationships with artworks

Printed in 3D, replicas of museum artworks are now being manipulated without fear by researchers and touched by visitors.
When you handle the artwork as part of research work, it gives you a better understanding of it and this updates old methods of analysis. When museum visitors are allowed to touch the artwork, this means reintroducing a dimension that has long been left aside in the sculptural experience and it provides access to the works for visually impaired people.
Before entering museums, some worship sculptures were so touched that they lost their extremities. Polished by the caresses of thousands of hands, the transformation of these sculptures was the result of common gestures. These sculptures were part of common life : they were not inert.
3D printing has the potential to regenerate the work of art by re-establishing its active role in social life : this can be made by bringing replicas closer to audiences while preserving the originals.
Today, one would leave the sacred noli me tangere that has long prevailed in museums and which was pushed to its climax in the immaculate spaces of modernism with the famous « eyesight alone » defended by art historian Clement Greenberg.

Lastly, 3D printing is a remarkable solution for the restitution of Western museum artworks to their countries of origin : by returning the original works essential to the cultures in which they were created, museums will be able to present replicas in high definition 3D printing and incredibly close to the originals.

Maud Maffei
Publié le 16/07/2019
Copyright © Observatoire de l'art contemporain - Tous droits réservés
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Version française

The V&A Presents “A World of Fragile Parts“ at the Venice Biennale’s Applied Arts Pavilion - Pauline Borghese, Biennale di Venezia, 2016 © Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The V&A Presents "A World of Fragile Parts" at the Venice Biennale’s Applied Arts Pavilion - Pauline Borghese, Biennale di Venezia, 2016
© Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

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