3D Printing & Museums

In recent years, museums have been implementing 3D printing technologies to preserve cultural heritage and heighten the museum experience. 3D technologies provide curators, researchers, and scientists with the tools to restore historical artifacts, accurately capture artifact details, and digitally preserve resources. This technology has become more affordable and easy-to-use, making it more accessible and popular in recent years.

The list of museums that use 3D technologies continues to grow. This list includes institutions like the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florida Science Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, The British Museum, London Science Museum, and the Tokyo Printing Museum.

Digital technology in museums has largely been screen-based – websites, videos, interactive projects, digitization projects and so on. They have been so commonly implemented in museums, that visitors now expect digital interaction when they go to the museum. 3D technology has been used to scan and print museum objects for preservation for some time, but as a newer iteration of interactive technology it may soon become an expectation from visitors too.

On that note, 3D printing technologies are being utilized for creative engagement. It has proven to be applicable as a unique hands-on teaching tool for exhibitions and in museum learning programs.

Dinosaur model from the American Museum of Natural History’s “Capturing Dinosaurs” program.

In 2013, the American Museum of Natural History began using 3D printing as a tool to teach young kids about science and natural history. The first program they offered, “Capturing Dinosaurs”, allows students to work with fossils to reconstruct dinosaur skeletons. Students have access to real paleontologic artifacts and the tools needed to capture them digitally, to then create the 3D models. Its a unique and innovative program that allows students to get behind the scenes with scientists and learn how they use different technologies in tangible ways to study and perform research.

The British Museum uses 3D printing in a number of interesting ways. In an open-source effort, following the lead of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they offer freely-downloadable 3D models for patrons to download and print works and objects from their collection. On the commercial side, in partnership with a company called ThinkSee3D, they have been using the technology to replicate famous works at the museum as small souvenirs available at their gift shop. Moving forward, the museum aims to use 3D printing in conjunction with virtual reality to innovatively showcase the museums’ works.

The British Museum includes this bust of Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat III in their 3D downloadable collection.

The uses and benefits of 3D technologies are manifold, but there is still plenty to be discovered. How the technologies will be used in the future is unknown, but will likely continue to bring innovation and creativity to the museum experience and perhaps provide more access and opportunities moving forward.

Tina Chesterman (INFO 653-01)

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Posted in Museums, Open Access, Preservation

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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