My current work explores 3D technologies integration into museum practice, particularly areas involving audience engagement and interaction. My research examines regional, national, and international museums to gain an understanding of how and why 3D printing affects a museum and its policies and audiences. A particular focus is on the visual and physical properties of 3D printed museum objects and how they affect the formulation of meaning.

I am currently working with Sheffield Museums to 3D scan and print a collection of their objects. The aim of this project is to create an archive of 3D scanned and printed museum objects, which will be used to compare the material details lost or gained in various 3D scanning and printing processes. The study will look at how an object’s texture, surface defects, and form are altered by each 3D scanner and subsequently a 3D printer.

Engaging museum audiences at The Great North Museum
Engaging museum audiences at The Great North Museum.

Envisioning the future of 3D printing in museums when it has only just begun is an interesting concept. To quote Christopher Barnett, “3D printing has the potential to revolutionize industry” and, while 3D may not revolutionize the entire museum, it certainly will change how we access and engage with museum collections.

Having worked with 3D technology and museums for a number of years I can see the value this technology brings to increasing access and awareness. With the Museums Association estimating that only 10% of museum collections are on display at one time, providing a resource for the public to access the vast treasure trove of objects that museums have to offer, is becoming ever more important.

Access and awareness

International and National museums such as The British Museum and The Smithsonian already allow audiences to download and 3D print objects from their collection. This enables people to view, share and learn from objects from the comfort of their own home.

But what if we take this a stage further?

The ever-decreasing costs of 3D scanning and printing equipment and the creation of Fablabs in institutions such as libraries and museums means 3D printed objects could soon be seen in schools, libraries, hospitals, and retirement homes, to name but a few.

3D printed objects from The British Museum's Sketchfab Collection
3D printed objects from The British Museum’s Sketchfab Collection.

The introduction of 3D printed museum objects would not only increase access and awareness to museum collections but likely encourage more people to visit museums in the same way online collections did. Potential museum-goers limited by health, mobility, or time would be able to physically engage with replicated museum objects from worldwide collections in multiple venues.

The unique thing about the creation of 3D scans and 3D prints serves both audiences and museum professionals. 3D scanning and printing can help staff learn more about their objects.

Learning about objects

There is no denying the value of 3D scanning and printing in museums, and techniques such as CT scanning give museum professionals the chance to analyze the object’s internal structure without damaging the object. The learning opportunities for both museum professionals and audiences are endless.

In the future, this technology could be used in schools on a regular basis to support national curriculum topics such as Ancient Egypt.

Furthermore, museums are using 3D printing to conduct research, which without this technology would be otherwise impossible. For example, The British Museum used 3D scanning and printing to scan a large area of the beach after early human footprints were discovered. Without this technology, the sea would have eroded the footprints before analysis had been completed.

People handling a 3D print of The Horniman's Monkeyfish
People handling a 3D print of The Horniman’s Monkeyfish.

There is still much to be done

The benefits of using 3D scanning in museums are numerous and plentiful but we still do not yet know the full potential or impact 3D printing has on the museum environment.

For example, how do audiences learn from or attach meaning to 3D printed museum objects, especially when those objects are used to teach museum visitors about the past? The majority of my own work focuses on this aspect as replicated objects are being used more and more as handling objects alongside exhibition content.

In the future, 3D printed museum objects could be used to provide audiences with visual impairments with a multi-sensory tactile experience.