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Reflections on ‘Plaster reproduction in the context of 3D printing’ Pop-Up Display and Lecture

By ucwchrc, on 22 November 2013

Mona Hess, Research Assistant for 3D imaging and project co-ordinator of the Petrie Museum’s 3D imaging project, curated a Pop-Up display this November on 3D printing and scanning at UCL Art Museum. 3D printing is a new and high profile phenomenon that started in 2007. The aim of the Petrie research has been to make use of the opportunities this technology creates in the museum space, such as engaging with a diverse and wide audience through the creation of 3D objects.

This Pop-Up workshop wove together film clips of high resolution colour laser 3D scanning to demonstrate how different types of technology works, as well as addressing techniques first-hand with the use of a mini hand scanner with the use of a low cost hand scanner based on near-infrared detection originally used for motion tracking. 

These exercises and demonstrations stimulated great discussion within the group around questions of accuracy, authenticity, ownership, mass production, and ethics in regards to 3D scanning processes. One person raised the important point that although detail is inevitably lost in the process, and in some cases parts have to be made up as there is just not enough information, accuracy is not necessarily the aim. The question and issue that is potentially more profitable to focus on instead is, ‘what is the reproduction for?’

Mona's 3D printed objects of 'Mrs Flaxman' copied from the originals by J. Flaxman

Mona’s 3D printed objects of ‘Mrs Flaxman’ copied from the originals by J. Flaxman

Objects reproduced by 3D scanning can be fundamental to the interactions within the museum space and to perceptions of their material displays. Not only do these reproduced objects allow the original object to be preserved and safe from close contact, but they also enable visitors to be more active and engaged participants. This is partly because visitors can handle the reproductions, which imparts sensory information and allows people to experience or understand the object in new and direct ways.

Mona also suggested other ways in which the original object is protected by the process of 3D scanning replication. For example, with 3D scanning, replication processes like moulding that physically touch the original artwork are no longer needed because information is now taken digitally. This has the implication of ‘freeing’, or democratising, the art object because replicas can more easily – or more ethically – be made. The object enters into a new kind of contract and existence within social space.

Other ways that 3D scanning can increase the production and circulation of objects is the new idea of having 3D museum catalogues available online. In the near future there may be the option of downloading and printing museum objects, especially as many (low quality, or non-research) 3D printers are affordable (about £1,000) and the materials used can be extremely cheap (around £5).

However, this notion of object accessibility poses problems of ownership, which Mona’s workshop touched upon. Mona stated that many curators have not yet addressed copyright issues. This should be promptly seen to before difficulties surrounding who owns an object or a print start to surface.

Ethical issues regarding 3D printing did make prominent news just before this workshop took place. This is because the V&A decided to purchase a 3D printed handgun, as well as the fact that the blueprint of this object had been available for anyone to download from the designer’s website. The purchasing of the gun is controversial in itself – let alone the notion that it is out of place in the V&A’s collection – and has been heavily criticised. However, as Grant Gibson (Editor of Crafts Magazine) does point out, its display in the museum is important for marking a new and ‘repellent’ moment in design making, which is acknowledged by a wider audience that is engaging with the implications and potentials of this technology.

In a refreshing contrast to this controversial and unsettling side to 3D printing, Mona’s workshop definitely drew out many of its positive implications and suggested fresh approaches for looking at the questions it raises as both a technological and creative process. It is what to do with these opportunities that is exciting, intriguing and unnerving, making this field of technology highly fascinating for its rich, unrealised potential.

In the short term, the Petrie Museum hopes to be able to offer visitors the option of customising objects as souvenirs to take away. This suggests 3D scanning has both a valid function to play in research, entertainment, education and even tourism, as well as making new connections between these different categories.



Mona Hess has been studying and working at UCL since 2008. She is doing a part time PhD at the Department for Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, and working as Research Assistant for UCL Museums and Public Engagement. Before this, Mona completed architectural studies in Munich Germany and a Master’s degree in Heritage Conservation in Bamberg. Here she subsequently specialised as Research Assistant in CAD, 3D imaging techniques and databases. Mona specialises in 3D colour imaging and replica for museum objects, and is also interested in E-documentation of cultural heritage.

Helen Cobby is a volunteer at the UCL Art Museum and is studying an MA in the History of Art at UCL.

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