Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years you will have heard of 3D printing. Just in case you have just dragged yourself into the light of this century, welcome back, the thing that I’m referring to is incredibly developed technology that allows you to create 3 dimensional physical objects from virtual images.
3D printing probably hits the newspapers with a big headline at least once a week, with minor stories popping up every single day. So far my personal favourite headline is probably one where they 3D printed a new jaw for a turtle . . . yep 3D printing is that awesome.
And yes, I’ve always thought of it as ‘pretty cool’. But it has always seemed at quite a distance from my life. After all 3D printing is not new, we’ve been mumbling about it for years. What is new is that technological advances are making it both more accurate, but also more affordable, making in more accessible for you and me. It’s no longer confined to a pedestal of wealthy organisations, you can buy yourself a 3D printer on amazon. So for the first time I’ve come face to face with a 3D printer because my new flatmate (who uses it to make parts for work) has one in his bedroom. AND IT IS AWESOME.
It’s only when you get the opportunity to print something that it really hits home how much they could be used for. Of course, as soon as I found out I was instantly eyeballing and selecting a 3D scanned object on the British Museums website to print out for my desk at work.
But what has this got to do with museums? Well actually quite a bit. Museums are looking to the future, which may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not, it is a great idea. At the Great North Museum: Hancock they have taken 3D scans of a number of objects, which have been scaled down and 3D printed and are currently being used by the amazing learning team there to engage audiences, notably giving visitors to autism friendly and relaxed openings the opportunity to interact with items in the collection by being able to touch 3D printed models of them. There are loads of other interesting example; by 3D printing the skull of an unwrapped mummy’s head that was found in the collection of the University of Melbourne they have then been able to then use forensic science to reconstruct the face of that individual.
Museums have been dabbling with 3D printing for some time. Just by looking at the Museum Associations website it’s noticeable that the majority of the articles relating to 3D printing date from 2013 and then it seems to have dropped off the radar. Because so much is still developing behind the scenes, from a visitor’s perspective it would be easy to not even realise that museums are thinking about 3D printing, apart from the fact that a number of museums 3D print items to sell in their shops, oh and when the V&A hit headlines by purchasing a 3D printed gun.
3D printing offers museums the potential of an unlimited supply of durable exact replicas, solving ‘no touching’ rules and thus aiding preventative conservation as well as visitor engagement. From a curatorial and preventative conservation perspective, imagine if you could 3D print protective packaging completely customised for the transportation of an object. Researchers could work on the other side of the world to a museum and be able to print out objects to have a look at without having to get on a plane. 3D printing could be used by conservation to record objects. All this things are feasible possibilities.
It’s currently still a bit of a novelty, but it is definitely gaining in popularity. Could it result in the repatriation of items after a 3D printed copy has been created? Can a 3D model replace the real thing? I’m tempted to say no, but I’m excited to find out what others thing . . . in the mean time I’ll be printing out my very own miniature British Museum collection.