3-D Printing: New Dimensions

Museums provide creative opportunities with 3-D printing

by Michael Mascioni


3-D printing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

At museums across the United States, artists and visitors have embraced the “maker culture” of 3-D printing technology, which allows users to create a physical work of art from a 3-D digital model. Museums now use 3-D printing to educate visitors about collections, inspire them to view collections in new ways and encourage them to create new works.

The technology plays a key role in the museums’ education and enrichment programs. Kim Robledo-Diga, director for innovation and learning at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, says that the technology aligns with the museum’s mission to “explore the nexus of art and science.”

The technique, along with Makerspaces, community spaces that promote creation and education, are “perfect fits for our museum’s long-term goal,” she says, and serve as ways to provide new educational tools beyond traditional art-studio classes. The technology gives visitors and artists the opportunity to use the museum collection as a resource to create new forms.

The Newark Museum first used 3-D printing in 2011 with its Makerspace Lab, which also offers a number of other creation tools for visitors. Robledo-Diga estimates that about 100 visitors have created objects using the museum’s two MakerBot 3-D printers, though thousands have observed the technology in action.

2012-06-0109.39.29Robledo-Diga notes that the use of 3-D printing is at an early stage in museums, as museum staffs assess how to effectively use it. The museum plans to promote the 3-D printers to local artists and is especially interested in engaging the artist community in Newark and Jersey City, New Jersey. Robledo-Diga believes that 3-D printing will help meet the needs of local artists and allow them to complete special projects. Last April, the museum also hosted the Greater Newark Mini Maker Faire, which showcased 3-D-printing artists and creative makers in the area.

The process of 3-D printing is an involved one, but the museum offers in-depth classes and workshops for youth and adults. The use of 3-D printing at the museum varies significantly; some visitors create their own designs, whereas others use the museum objects as references. All participants take their creations home.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has also initiated a range of programs to explore the use of 3-D printing at its museum. Visitors create mashups of objects in the museum by taking photos; using free software, such as AutoDesk’s 123D Catch, to turn those photos into 3-D models; and uploading the models to the thingiverse.com content-sharing site for 3-D models. Don Undeen, senior manager of the museum’s media lab, notes that this application of 3-D printing has “taken off without the museum’s involvement,” with many visitors discovering the program by word of mouth.

The initiatives are outgrowths of the Met’s digital-media lab, which is dedicated to experimenting with new artistic technologies and examining how they affect visitors’ museum experience. Undeen says that the use of 3-D printing gives visitors a new way of viewing the museum’s collection.

Professional artists can also use the 3-D printer to scan and model objects in the museum collection. One of the great advantages of using the collection is that “much of it is free of intellectual-property rights, allowing [artists] to enjoy free creative reuse of the collection,” Undeen says.

The Met has hosted a variety of 3-D printing programs, including its first 3-D Scanning and Printing Hackathon in 2012, which enabled a range of digital artists to test the technology. Last summer, the museum organized a five-day 3-D-printing study program for high-school students and held a series of meetups providing instruction for adults. The 3-D printers are open to the general public through special events.

Undeen sees “3-D printing proceeding on an experimental basis, initially in museums and then generating mainstream usage,” especially as 3-D printers become more widely available in schools.

Through thingiverse.com/met, users have downloaded approximately 2,000 model files from the Met’s 3-D model collection of 70 designs. Of the 10 most downloaded objects, eight are from the museum’s American Wing collection, and two are from the Asian department. Undeen attributes the popularity of these objects to the nature of the materials they use and to the more active involvement of the departments overseeing those objects in 3-D printing. Figurative pieces, classical art, human figures and animal figures tend to be the most popular objects for 3-D printing in the museum.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York has also used 3-D printing to involve students with its collection. Barry Joseph, associate director for digital learning at the museum, explains that the mission of its 3-D printing programs has been to “harness the tools of digital fabrication to engage youth and immerse them more deeply in scientific content and processes.”

In February, the museum ran the “Capturing Memories” 3-D printing program, which gave students open access to memorabilia from the former planetarium, the scientific tools of explorers and models of exhibits and other objects from the museum. Students could scan the physical objects, work on computers to polish their scans and share that material with others online and in their schools. The museum’s 3-D printing program last summer, “Capturing Dinosaurs:  Reconstructing Extinct Species,” allowed students to prototype and explore dinosaur species through fossils.

Although the use of 3-D printing at museums is still at an early stage, the growing popularity among artists and visitors suggests that 3-D printing will soon become a more significant part of museum programing.

Michael Mascioni writes about digital media, clean energy and other topics for such publications as Internet Evolution, Inter Park, and Innovation & Tech Today. He is co-author of The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier, published by Gower Publishing. He also is a market research consultant in digital media, and serves as conference director of a hybrid energy conference. 


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