Can We Save Museums by 3D Printing Artifacts?

“Don’t touch the exhibits.”

You’re probably used to seeing these signs in museums. Guides slip the warning into their spiels several times during tours. When you see a child reach out to grab something, you have an instinctive reaction to stop them.

But it doesn’t always apply anymore.

And it’s all thanks to 3D scanning and printing. Researchers, archeologists, and others who work with artifacts have begun using 3D printing to create exact replicas of the objects.

With these replicas, they – and in some cases, you – handle the bones much more than is possible with the originals. Some museums are even selling 3D printed replicas in gift shops or making the files available for anyone with access to a printer.

How It’s Helping Researchers

A team from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., printed a whale fossil from Chile after it was excavated. Rather than examining the delicate skeleton itself, they’re working on the 3D printed version.

3D printing offers several benefits to the researchers, as the Mashable article points out: “The skeleton is comprised of 40 chunks, each one printed out and glued together. It’s completely to-scale from the day of the excavation, so it’s possible to conduct future research.

“‘It’s exactly the scale of detail you’d see in real life, right down to the sand,’ [paleontologist Nick Pyenson, Ph.D.] says.”

Making History More Accessible

Once an artifact is destroyed, the history associated with it is lost. Or, at least, that’s the way it used to be.

In 2015, when ISIS destroyed the artifacts housed in Nineveh Museum in Iraq, it assumed that was the case. But Morehshin Allahyari refused to accept that.

She built 3D files of as many artifacts as possible using photos (unfortunately, not enough images exist of some artifacts so she wasn’t able to recreate all of them). Allahyari then 3D printed the artifacts and has made the files, as well as her research into each piece, available to the public.

The idea of history being more accessible to people is why many are pushing to put 3D files online where anyone could print them.

3D Printing: Is It Good for Museums?

3D printing is great for giving people the ability to handle artifacts themselves and learn about the objects. But will mass production of these artifacts help museums and spur interest in history, or will it hurt them?

In a time when many museums are trying to figure out how to keep patrons engaged and dealing with budget cuts, museums may not be willing to invest in 3D scanners and printers. But it may be necessary.

The idea is that young people will become more interested in history if it’s more accessible and visible. After all, how many of us found history books dry and boring in school? Getting our own dinosaur bone, though? That would have been cool.

However, being able to look at these artifacts from the comfort of home or the familiarity of a local library may result in people staying out of museums or other exhibits. Why would schools need to make field trips to exhibits when they can just print the artifacts as part of class?

But people may also become more interested in seeing the real thing after handling a copy.

Museums as a Place of Dialogue

Incidences such as ISIS’s attack on Nineveh underscore the need for a way to recreate artifacts. But museums are also places of long traditions. This means resistance.

However, many have also pointed out that museums are a place of dialogue. If museums are becoming a place where people come to discuss important social issues, the artifacts that spur these discussions need to be present.

Acknowledging this may lead to more acceptance of 3D files and printing as a method of preservation. Especially if the museum’s goal is to increase accessibility for not only the local population but people around the world.

Museums Offering 3D Files for Printing

If you want your own piece of history, you can find 3D files of artifacts from the following museums:

  • Smithsonian
  • Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology
  • British Museum
  • New York’s Metropolitan Museum

The Future of Museums

Whether or not museums choose to make 3D files of their artifacts available to the public, there is value in 3D printers for the researchers who work with the artifacts. 3D-printed artifacts are exact replicas without the risks of handling the originals.

We’d also like to be able to print our own T. rex. Just in case you were wondering, Smithsonian.

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