3D scanning in Museums

Ultimo Science Festival 2010, 3D scanning at the Powerhouse Museum . Photography by Sotha Bourn

3D scanning has been entering the consumer mainstream from a number of different angles in recent years. First was the Microsoft Kinect released in 2010 with its depth sensor and camera able to reconstruct a simple 3D model of its environment – exposed to lounge room xBox gamers and artists alike. Then came the photogrammetry mobile apps able to assemble a 3D model in software by combining a series of 2D photographs taken from differing angles into a realistic solid model. Autodesk’s 123D Catch leverage cloud processing of high resolution mobile phone camera images to make what used to be difficult and time consuming, easy and low risk. This type of consumer-grade 3D scanning has even been popularised in music videos – Aaron Koblin’s video for Radiohead’s House of Cards  through to Sydney hip hop crew The Herd’s The Sum of it All.

Not surprisingly museums have been very interested too.

Larger institutions including the Powerhouse Museum started doing professional laser scanning of selected objects in the early 2000s but with the consumerisation of photogrammetry, museum educators especially, began to experiment with cheaper, easier iPad-driven scanning.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco have all held 3D hackathons in the past two years working with educators, artists and the public to scan out-of-Copyright sculptures from their collections. The results of these hackathons have been largely promotional – positioning these institutions at the forefront of 3D in museums – but equally importantly they have contributed scans to public repositories of 3D models like Thingiverse where they continue to be able to be repurposed and remixed. Both the Asian Art Museum and Art Institute have linked the online collections to Thingiverse, giving a glimpse of a future where one day, perhaps, all museum objects will have 3D scans.

For others, 3D scanning and replica-printing creates the opportunity for museums to engage in touch-based learning. In many ways 3D scanning and printing has the potential to expand initiatives for vision-impaired visitors beyond the limited selection of casts in Tactile Gallery-style initiatives of the Louvre.

At the Smithsonian Institution, staff worked with Autodesk and 3D Systems to create Smithsonian X 3D – a high-end gallery of very high resolution models of a small number of significant ‘hero’ objects from across the Smithsonian’s 19 different museums and collections. SIx3D has focussed ensuring that 3D scanning across the many museums are done at a level suitable for research and scholarly use too. Whilst time consuming compared to hackathon-style scans, there are already emerging technologies that promise to greatly accelerate research quality scanning. The archaeological scans undertaken by the Smithsonian, in particular, have made possible analysis and site preservation otherwise difficult for scientists to undertake such as this T-Rex dig. And of course, every kid will want to print out the T-Rex at life size when the scan is complete.

3D models themselves are also beginning to enter collections as ‘born-digital’ objects. Many architectural collections have been considering the best ways to archive and preserve proprietary CAD formats for years however these are no longer just conceptual concerns but increasingly pressing matters for museum administrators. And whilst 3D printed prototypes have also existed in many product design collections including the Powerhouse Museum, the consumerisation of 3D printing has also opened up new avenues for artists and designers to rapidly create new work outside of architectural and industrial design companies. This consumerisation has lead to a massive growth in potentially significant 3D printed objects for museums to consider acquiring. But what should be acquired? And how?

Tall Green Bloom urn, England, 2012; Designed by Michael Eden (English, b. 1955); 3-D printed Nylon; 41 x 18 cm (16 1/8 x 7 1/16 in.); Museum purchase through gift of Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie and from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund, 2013-53-1; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photo by Ellen McDermott © Smithsonian Institution

Tall Green Bloom urn, England, 2012; Designed by Michael Eden (English, b. 1955); 3-D printed Nylon; 41 x 18 cm (16 1/8 x 7 1/16 in.); Museum purchase through gift of Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie and from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund, 2013-53-1; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photo by Ellen McDermott © Smithsonian Institution

In 2014, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum acquired the 3D model – the source code – for British ceramicist Michael Eden’s Tall Bloom vase, a limited edition 3D print of which had been purchased for the collection in 2013. The source code was acquired as a Rhino 3D (.3dm) file along with earlier iterations of the final design printed from Rhino onto paper. It joins other source code already in the museum’s collection. The acquisition of the 3D source code itself is forcing the museum to decide whether or not the limited edition vase acquired earlier is in fact a surrogate of the source code acquired later – even though it is almost certainly the printed vase that will be exhibited publicly.

For other design museums it also questions whether collecting practices should always strive to acquire 3D models and source code with contemporary acquisitions?

The past twenty years has forced museums to come to terms with 2D photography of their collections and even the most conservative of institutions have opened themselves up to 2D digitisation and visitor photography. These changes, although slow, have always been premised on the notion that the image created was always a ‘surrogate’ of the ‘real’ work. But now with 3D imaging the divide between replica and original is becoming less and less obvious. For public museums and public collections the opportunities are enormous.