Every Object is Unique – 3D Scanning & Printing in Museums

Last week I had the pleasure of having been trained to use our new 3D scanner (woohoo!) and though I might take the time to write-up some thoughts on the whole concept and use of 3D Scanners and 3D Printing in a Museum setting. The scanner we now have and love is a HandySCAN 700 from Creaform, a really cool hand-held 3D scanner.

However, regardless of how cool the tech is I am having some difficulty getting my head around how to fit 3D Scanning and Printing into a Museum setting. I think I’m having a problem with authenticity and how by using these technologies we are “preserving” our cultural heritage. This of course leads to the question of what we are preserving and how do these technologies help or hinder.

I was particularly struck by this quote in an article about 3D Scanning and Printing the Pompeii body casts.

The problem is that they’re too fragile for traveling, which explains the need for the perfectly reproduced 3D printed copies.

This of course applies to most things in a Museum’s horde. And here is where my problem comes in. Authenticity and how we take in our objects. And I don’t think it explains anything about why we need “perfectly reproduced 3D printed copies”.

It is pretty well established that human beings have a connection to the authentic. Otherwise why have Cars Shows, Antique Markets, or Museums for that matter. If the authentic didn’t matter why do Americans by the thousands flock to see the original U.S. Constitution, when a photocopy is ostensibly the same thing – the words matter more don’t they?

We have a lot of cars at the Science and Technology Museum here in Ottawa. What if instead of putting them on display we exhibit Hot Wheels versions of them? These aren’t just your run of the mill Hot Wheels; these are the ultimate Hot Wheels – accurate right down to the salt stains on the floor mats (this is Canada after all). Would it be fair to say that because we have the Hot Wheels we are “preserving” the original. Could we also say to our visitors that we can’t show them the original (to preserve it) but look at this lovely Hot Wheels – look at the salt stains!?

Now replace Hot Wheels with “perfectly reproduced 3D printed copies”. How does this change the fact we are still not looking at the authentic original but at a copy? What’s funny is that people would come to see these Hot Wheels – because they’re really cool. I can say with certainty that they won’t confuse these tiny replicas with the real thing, and that they would balk a paying to see the originals only to see the replicas, but paying to see the replicas is something altogether different. Then again – this does nothing to explain Vegas….

I think it all comes down to how we talk about, and how we integrate these technologies into our spaces. 3D Scanning and Printing are tools and in the case of printing a manufacturing process. Injection molding, plaster casts, carving a model are much the same, but 3D printing has an aura of magic these days. I see 3D printing talked about as if we are living in Star Trek and we now have replicators (rather than Stargate replicators – we don’t want those). Would we say to our visitors “Come see our new injection molded models” and expect anything but shrugs and possibly a chortle or two?

This is a discussion that we need to have in our Cultural Institutions. We’ve been using models and dioramas for centuries to educated and entertain our visitors and this new technology gives the ability to make really accurate ones. But they are still just models, replicas, fakes. But fakes that stand on their own and are cool on their own. Once created they take on their own life, removed from the original but still attached tangentially. Who knows maybe the 3D printed version will be worth and admired more in the future than the original.

So where does this leave us in regards to this new 3D technology? Forging ahead but with caution and knowledge that this is just another tool to add to our kit. A very cool bit of kit, but one that comes with its own issues and caveats.

That said, if you will now excuse me, I have some things to scan. :-)