3D Printing, 3D Capture, and Opportunities for Design Custodians

Adapted from a presentation by Cosmo Wenman to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Cosmo Wenman
22 min readJun 2, 2014


In early 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) opened its new Art + Technology Lab, and invited me to give its very first presentation. My talk, adapted for print below, was to a diverse cross section of 50 or so LACMA staff members and was on the topic of 3D printing, 3D capture, and opportunities for museums to use these new technologies to bring art to a wider audience.

State of the Art

Large-scale 3D prints made on consumer-grade printers

Press coverage of 3D printing frequently emphasizes the physical qualities of objects that come directly out of the printer as though they are representative of the state of the art. A printer may extrude plastic or cure resin with a laser, and have output resolution measured in hundreds or tens or microns, but what’s most important now is not the material specifications or capabilities of specific machines, but that 3D printing in general is contributing to easy manufacture, and easy physical experimentation with design.

We are just getting acquainted with the idea of a broadly distributed, semi-automated capability for producing physical objects—high fidelity reproductions and novel designs alike—on a desktop. And if you consider 3D printers and prints as tools, and the objects they output as mere intermediate steps toward final products, or even as canvases, there is much more potential than is generally recognized, even in the industry’s own hype.

For example, I have been getting some attention for my large-scale prints. All of these larger prints [see photo above] were made by printing the objects in smaller pieces on consumer-grade desktop machines, then assembling the pieces. I then finish them with a variety of materials, some of which I’m developing for a line of consumer-grade post-3D-print finish products.

Strictly speaking, this may seem to be “cheating”—because there’s more here than 3D printing, of course. But there are no rules. You’re allowed to glue printed pieces together. You’re allowed to paint them, or cast them in bronze. You can do whatever you want with the output of the printer. This is simple stuff, but there are huge strides to be made in combining even the most basic techniques from other domains with the novelties of 3D printing.

In fact, much of 3D printing’s potential is in its interaction with other, existing processes, and the physical output of a printer, even enhanced with post-print know-how, is less important than how new customs stemming from 3D printing will affect—and intrude into—some of those other domains.

Demand for Design

One aspect of 3D printing that gets relatively little press attention—because it’s visually not as interesting and it’s not as sexy a story—is the challenge of 3D design. Every advance with 3D printing—be it some new technique, lower price point, or some new medium—is being shadowed by parallel efforts to improve 3D design capabilities. And that is a real challenge, because design is difficult. Even the most intuitive 3D design interface ultimately relies on the user having some design know-how, even if the design challenge is as simple as the user having a clear idea of what it is they want or need—whether it is a new design or a preexisting form.

What I hope more people come to realize is that what 3D printers are really manufacturing—whether their physical output is plastic or ceramic or resin—what 3D printers are really producing, is demand for design. These machines, this industry, signal a huge, growing appetite for access to 3D design.

Museum professionals and art collectors, as custodians of artifacts of design, should take great interest in developments in 3D printing and be attuned to opportunities for meeting this budding demand for design in ways they are uniquely positioned to exploit. As 3D printing fuels demand for design, it will offer unprecedented opportunities for museums and art patrons to influence and promote the appreciation, conservation, value, meaning, and utility of the designs they care for.

Outputs… and Inputs

3D capturing a plaster cast of Venus de Milo at the Skulpturhalle Basel museum

I’ve been exploring the outlines of this potential for interaction of 3D printing with existing design by using what I see as the flip-side, or natural complement, of 3D printing, which is 3D capture. Specifically, I’ve been using 3D photogrammetry software, which converts regular digital photographs into 3D models, to capture artwork in museums.

Over the last few years photogrammetry has been tracking, almost one-to-one, advances in the power and ease of use of consumer-grade 3D printing. It is still in its infancy, at least in its consumer-ready form, but it is already extraordinarily powerful.

Image: rendering of 3D models derived from normal digital photos and photogrammetry software

I’m still surprised when I see the results come back from my own photoshoots and prints. Some photogrammetry sessions produce eerily accurate, evocative results. But the mystique and power at play here is difficult to convey. It may need to be experienced firsthand to be appreciated, as there seems to be a strong self-referential dynamic to it. Knowing your own talents and limits puts it into perspective—knowing exactly what you put into a 3D capture, design, and print, then seeing how much you get back from lenses, and mere machinery and procedure, feels like working black magic. I have to recommend trying it yourself.

Much more specialized and expensive tools like laser scanners have been available for years, but photogrammetry is particularly interesting because everybody already carries around cameras; the physical hardware has already been broadly deployed, anyone can experiment with it, and it now has the potential for mass market coordination.

Instances and Response

I made these objects with 3D photogrammetry in museums I’ve visited over the last two years. I’ve shown a couple of these pieces in public venues, and their reception has been interesting.

This video shows visitors in the Louvre, in the gallery with Venus de Milo. These are visitors who already want to mediate their experience with the artwork through technology—the cellphones they’re holding up to Venus let them memorialize their experience with the artwork, let them hold it, and control it in some way. The devices allow them to exert some aspects of possession over the artwork. In one form or another, they can take a piece of it home.

Next up in the video is my 3D print of the Venus de Milo, which I captured from an 1850 plaster cast of the original in the Skulpturhalle museum in Basel, Switzerland. My print is shown here on display at the Carrousel du Louvre expo hall, just a couple hundred feet from the original. And people are responding to it in the same way they respond to the original. But I don’t think they’re responding to the novelty of a 3D print, or even a well-executed 3D print. They’re responding to the recognition of the design, and the importance, and the emotional appeal and history of the design. Ultimately they want to touch it, pick it up, and possess it as well.

Question from LACMA staff: How do you compare this with the experience of seeing the object itself?

Your underlying question there, I think, is, are we missing out on some ineffable aspect of being in the room with the original, and I’m not sure that particular aspect of the experience needs to be compared, because what’s nice about all this is it’s entirely non-destructive. You can still go see the original. This is not necessarily competing with the original, it’s just a new way to experience it.

I know what it’s like to be in awe of a work of art, but I’m open to being persuaded that that can be reproduced with reproductions, and I think it’s worth exploring. And I believe that whatever might be irreproducible in the original, we can certainly make meaningful attempts to experience the same thing with high quality reproductions.

And that was something that was, to my understanding, embraced with the 19th century plaster cast tradition. It was a way of making a beautiful design available to people who would never be able to go across the Atlantic to go see it in person.

And if anything, I would think reproductions would encourage people to go and seek out the original, particularly with less well-known pieces that they might not ever encounter if a museum didn’t publish the design online. Somebody might see a work for the very first time as a download from a museum, and then seek out the original and pay that museum a visit.

But that question of how does it compare, in some mystical sense—I feel like I don’t speak the language… that particular question is usually explored in terms that I’m skeptical of.

This next video shows is a helmet I designed using my 3D capture of the British Museum’s over-life-size marble bust of Perikles. I didn’t get a good capture because the lighting in the gallery was a challenge, but I got good enough results that I could digitally separate the helmet from the marble, then design it directly using that capture as a template. I was able to recreate a 3D print of an artifact that has never been discovered. It was also on display in the Louvre expo hall at the 2013 Paris 3D Printshow:

I don’t think people are responding to pieces like this as 3D prints for 3D printing’s sake—not like novelties coming out of a trendy new technology. I see people responding to the objects in a way that demonstrates the objects’ emotional appeal. People want to put their hands on them, hold them, pick them up, and even walk away with them. Or print their own.

3D Printing as Network Phenomenon

That brings up another important aspect of 3D printing that’s not necessarily obvious in popular press accounts—but which I think is possibly its most important characteristic: this is a networked machine. 3D printing is an internet phenomenon.

We’re dealing with digital design, which is fully fluid and can propagate endlessly and be limitlessly reproduced over and over again. It can be modified over and over. We’re in the early stages of something potentially as potent as the way the internet allows text to be digitized and go online, with themes and ideas and original writing reworked into new and novel iterations.

Because the designs are digital, the online, networked nature of 3D capture and printing is where the real power and potential for influence is with 3D printing, and we’re in the very early stages of a combinatorial explosion of novelty and creativity in design and sculptural artwork.

The internet is where museums, as design custodians, have their biggest opportunity to make use of 3D printing. If you engage the potential of 3D capture and 3D printing in the online arena, the network effects inherent in the interconnectedness of 3D printers—these digital design input and output terminals—is what will allow you to experiment with potentially exponential growth in influence.

Which collectors and institutions publish first, and which objects they publish, how they prioritize them and present it all—how they explain its meaning and significance, and how easy they make it to obtain—will make an indelible mark on how all this potential is realized, how it is perceived and unfolds. And once sculptural artworks are digitized and put online, they can be available for many, many years to come. This technological moment marks the start of something that may be very, very long lived and influential, and the early adopters have an opportunity to wield unprecedented influence on the coming hundreds of years of art history.

Ancient Designs in the Wild

In these cases I’ve shown so far—Perikles’ helmet and the Venus de Milo—these were just particular instances of physical iterations that 3D printing has allowed me to make. But I’ve shared almost all of these designs, and that enables other people to take the files and print them to their own specifications.

Here are some examples of prints others have made for themselves using my data, just in the last six weeks since I published the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace.

Why are they doing this if not because they recognize the beauty or the value or meaning inherent in these designs?

They print them in different materials, different sizes, with different resolutions, making different comparative analyses. These are people who have creative talent, creative know-how, who just want access to the basic palette of our common cultural heritage of 3D design—the basic building blocks for all sorts of unanticipated experimentation that people will be doing if they’re given access to these designs.

Here’s a tweet about an article in The Independent about my publication of Venus de Milo. This kind of response is fairly representative, and it’s from someone who doesn’t even have a 3D printer:

People already love these designs. They know about them. And when they know that they’re available, they want them. And 3D scanning and 3D printing can allow them to have them. My captures are the first high-quality models of Venus de Milo and Winged Victory that have ever been published—people now have direct access to their forms for the first time. And in first six weeks of their publication, their files had been downloaded 30,000 times.

Here is a model of a marble portrait of Alexander the Great at the British Museum. This is the same print that I’ve brought today, in two iterations—with a bronze patina and with a rusted iron patina to make it look like industrial wreckage—and it’s what we’re printing right now on the demo machine here:

We’re printing out a 2,000 year old design that anyone with an internet connection can directly access for the first time, ever.

People of means—even fictional people—have been collecting plaster copies of this Alexander portrait for as long as they have been available. Here’s a frame from one of the Indiana Jones movies, with Alexander there in the background. And now that design has been released into the wild, and anyone can have it, and they don’t need me or anyone else to tell them what to do with it, or any other designs. More prints of my captures, by other 3D printer users:

It’s interesting to me to see people doing test prints or demonstrations using the Venus de Milo, or a torso by Polyclitus, or other archetypal designs. It doesn’t have to be the Stanford Bunny, or the Utah Tea Pot that they’re using to show what they can do. They’re printing sculpture to show the quality of the print, using iconic, foundational designs to say “Hello world, I have this new power, this is what I can do with it.” These 3D printer users seem to know these works are significant, and that their ability to access and reproduce them is equally significant and promising.

Question from LACMA staff: In the video [a slightly different version] the [redacted] piece is the first piece that’s modern. There aren’t copyright issues? That’s why I thought you confined yourself to antiquities.

I have a couple of pieces I could have been more careful about with copyright, but mostly I’m dealing with antiquities. I’ve done a couple pieces that I probably shouldn’t speak about in public while the camera is recording. But you’re right, and that’s one exception you were looking for, and you caught it…

LACMA: Some people here have had experiences…

I’m sure. This is something you’re going to have to deal with as museums, with your photography policies, with outdoor artwork. The fact is that everybody is carrying a camera these days, so I don’t know that I have any good solutions to recommend to you. The fact is that right now people can absolutely make crude to medium quality copies of things using very inexpensive equipment. And that capability is only going to get more powerful and diffuse. That’s all very much going to be on the table here, how museums deal with these issues. And I’m not sure that there are going to be satisfactory answers, or at least that everyone will be satisfied with those answers.

But there’s a way you can take control of some of this. The real power that you have available, as custodians of beauty and design, is in enabling people to have access to it directly. So as a technology lab, as a forward-thinking institution, it would be great if LACMA had a bank of 3D printers here so people could use them and experiment with them inside the museum, but it shouldn’t stop at that.

The real opportunity is with others’ 3D printers, with the manufacturing capability that’s going to be in more and more people’s hands, outside of the museum. And the way to communicate with them is to share the data—to collect the data and freely share it with them.


You’ll see that institutions like the Smithsonian are getting a lot of attention because they’re starting to actually publish 3D designs of objects in their collection. Personally, I’m a little underwhelmed with the quantity that they have published so far, and also by the designs that they have published—they aren’t exactly the greatest hits.

But if you at LACMA were to contemplate taking 3D captures of your works, you would face the same question the Smithsonian faces, which is what do we start with? What’s most important to get out first, what’s the most important to invest the time and effort in making the 3D capture and publishing?

I feel strongly that you should start with the most important works, your most famous works, your most well-known works. Because, for starters, those will be the most well-received. People will be the most appreciative to see beautiful designs that they’re already familiar with and love.

But from a strategic and practical point of view, I would encourage you to consider starting with works of which there are already multiple copies distributed out in the world. That might be a little counterintuitive, but if you have a very unique piece in your collection, I would defer capturing and publishing those. I would jump on capturing and publishing works where there are already either exact copies or very similar subject matter out there in other museums collections, or in private hands.

That is because of the kind of work I was able to do in September 2013, when I spent a week in a plaster cast museum in Switzerland—the Skulpturhalle Basel, which is one of the few remaining plaster cast collections with a sizable collection of plaster casts from the 1800s. I found a friendly museum that embraces the experimental and educational functions of copyism, and they allowed me to capture whatever I chose. It’s where I captured Venus de Milo and Winged Victory, from plaster casts the Louvre’s own atelier made in 1850 and 1892—capturing identical topology without any interaction with the Louvre at all.

This is a 3D print of a 19th century plaster cast of an Athena of Velletri-type bust. There are several surviving iterations from antiquity of this essential form. The original from which this cast was made is in the Munich Glyptothek. But I was able to capture its topology in the Swiss plaster cast museum.

The Lansdowne Bust

Once I publish my survey of this cast—which I have not yet done—I may thereby degrade interest in a survey of its ancestor in Munich, which could only produce the same topology. Though there are differences between the two pieces, it’s even possible that in publishing my survey of the Swiss cast of the Munich bust, I will undermine interest in any future survey of the Lansdowne Bust of Athena of Velletri here at LACMA.

Along those lines, I want you to be most aware of this dynamic as it relates to bronzes, particularly modern era bronzes that are in the public domain. The manufacture of bronze of course entails molds being made. There are also frequently clay originals and plaster copies in existence that survive alongside the finished bronzes. And there are usually multiple original bronzes cast.

I visited LACMA here a couple weeks ago to do a surreptitious 3D capture in your gallery of Picasso’s 1909 bronze Head of a Woman. The lighting in the gallery was less than ideal, and I wasn’t able to get behind the piece as well as I would have liked, and the back of the piece is very dark. The result, here, is a very low quality print.

However, there is a plaster of that same piece in Dallas at the Nasher Sculpture Center, and it looks like it’s very well lit. There’s a plaster in the Tate. There are multiple bronzes of this piece scattered around the world.

LACMA, Nasher, Tate

If another museum, or I, or anyone else makes a very nice quality 3D capture of that piece, whether it’s the Tate’s, the Nasher’s, the Art Institute Chicago’s, the Met’s, or LACMA’s, the first person to publish a very high quality capture of that piece will likely be the last person to do so. Because there will be no interest in a second high-quality capture of a second bronze cast with the exact same topology.

So, if and when you start contemplating how to prioritize which pieces to capture and publish, you should know that there’s a race that’s already underway. There are already museums that have very sophisticated 3D capture capabilities and that are already actively doing 3D captures of their most valuable and most well-known pieces. They’re just not sharing them yet. But if you look at your galleries here at LACMA—with bronze portraits by Matisse and Picasso, Degas dancers, Rodins—there are multiple casts of those in other museums all over the world, and they too will soon be thinking about what to scan and publish, and thinking about who will be first, who will stake out this frontier and make these pieces more accessible, to more people, than has ever before been possible. And that distinction will be awarded, at most, once per piece.

Digital Patronage

It occurs to me that there might be the potential for some very intriguing fundraising here. There might be patrons of the arts out there who might like to be involved in sponsoring the capture and publication of archival quality 3D captures of Rodins, Degas, Matisses, and publishing that data under their name: The LACMA 2014 Archival Quality 3D model of Rodin/Degas/etc, made possible by insert-name-here.

If there’s any potential for that kind of fundraising—raising funds for digitizing and publishing such works into the wild, into the public domain—if you or other museums take a wait-and-see approach with it, I believe what you’ll ultimately see is other museums making your fundraising opportunities evaporate, piece by piece. Because once a bronze’s data is out there, nobody will want or need or notice the data of an identical cast.

The Smithsonian, for example, is actively capturing lots of stuff. But when they talk about what they’re capturing, they don’t usually talk about Rodin, or Degas. For now it’s mostly fossils and interesting Americana. They don’t talk about high-profile works, or modern era artwork, even if it’s in the public domain. But the Hirshhorn has bronzes that you have, and they have access to very high quality technology…

Comment from LACMA staff: Rodins and Degas would be, for objects in the public domain, they could represent good fundraising potential, but I think once you start copying works that are still copyrighted… and as you said, this could drastically change our photography policies. Once you allow—we have a very open photography policy in our galleries—but once you have a situation where you’ve got people taking lots of capture photos, and then going out and making their own Giacometti, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

Well, I’ll tell you, there are already people walking around museums with cameras and even Google Glass taking 3D surveys of objects that are not necessarily in the public domain. In fact, I’ll show you another technique that people are actively exploring, which will be very problematic for photography policies, but which is it far too late to do anything about…

Here’s the colossal Buddha of Bamiyan that was destroyed by the Taliban, photogrammetrically reconstructed exclusively from photographs culled from online sources.

Video demo by Autodesk

This approach is in its infancy, and has only produced very crude results, but this kind of capability is only going to get more powerful and less expensive. And the fact is, there are hundreds and thousands of photographs online of every notable work, public domain or not, and they are open to this mode of analysis and reconstruction. So the question, how will museums respond… you could stop photography tomorrow, but there’s already data out there from which to reconstruct the models. For many important works, the data has been leaving your museums for the last hundred years.

And whatever the survey method, policies will likely vary from museum to museum, so for outsiders it becomes a matter of finding the path of least resistance:

These are photos of the Musée d’Orsay’s bronze cast of Rodin’s 1879 Bellona and the Cantor Center for Visual Arts’ cast, thought to be the first or second cast of this work.

The Musée d’Orsay, famously—or infamously, if you ask the photographers who stage protests in its galleries—does not allow photography. But the Cantor does. So I have a 3D capture of the Cantor’s Bellona, and not the Musée d’Orsay’s. And I’m fairly indifferent about whether its source is the Musée d’Orsay or the Cantor bronze—the topology is the same.

See this NPR story for more about my visit to the Cantor Center

Comment from LACMA staff: I don’t understand why this is a fundraising opportunity for museums.

This is just speculation on my part, but it occurs to me that there might be a donor who might like to be associated with, say, one of your particular Degas. They might want to be the person who’s responsible for bestowing a high-quality 3D printable model of a particular Degas on the world, and being credited for having done that new, novel thing that will allow people to share in the patron’s appreciation for that work in a compelling new way.

Question from LACMA staff: Couldn’t you also charge for the image, just like you pay for an app? I mean, you could charge directly, [publish] into the public domain, and publish something and say, if you want it, it’s X number of dollars.

Sure, absolutely. There are many different ways. Some of them are like the Hollywood model, or the music industry model. You’re going to be dealing with many of the same issues. But if you make it economical and easy to get to, and high quality, potentially—hopefully—this stuff will show up, say, in iTunes with revenue going to you on a per-download basis for a model like this. It’s wide open. Personally, I like the idea of museums and patrons making and funding these surveys and just releasing the files for free. To me, that route is more appealing, but I have all sorts of wonderful ideas about how other people should spend their money.

Question from LACMA staff: How do you release your files?

Just for convenience, I use a website called Thingiverse, which is a forum for sharing 3D designs. That forum is operated by MakerBot, who has a vested interest in having lots of material there for people to print. There are others, but that’s really the biggest and most covenient one for me right now.

Question from LACMA staff: Have you ever done a copy of a person?

Life-size 3D Printed Portrait — more info

I’m just starting to experiment with captures of living subjects. It’s very difficult, because the photogrammetry approach requires many photos. I take hundreds of photos, and people just can’t hold still long enough to do whole photo surveys. There are handheld scanners that are improving, but I’m not satisfied with the equipment right now. It doesn’t give the quality that I would be looking for to do portraits from life right now. But people are experimenting with it, and it’s improving. [The video above shows a recent 3D printed portrait made via direct design, not capture.]

Question from journalist: Could you talk some about potential educational uses? Or have you had inquiries from teachers?

Definitely. These fossil skulls here in front, and this big white one here, were captured by Louise Leakey’s organization, African Fossils. Leakey is actively trying to figure out a way to work with Kenyan museums to capture as many fossils as possible, to find a way to make it worthwhile for the museum to let her publish them for classroom use. Because there’s just nothing like holding a specimen in your hand.

Leakey asked me to print these for her, just as proofs of concept, as she’s particularly interested in seeing what’s possible with inexpensive machines and materials. She’s interested in getting fossils into the hands of African schoolchildren—getting high-quality models into their classrooms, however it can be done.

Comment from LACMA staff: I think some museums are also planning on doing 3D printing to get sculptural objects in the hands of the visually impaired, sort of like the Met’s touch gallery. But in that case, one of the limitations of the Met’s touch gallery is it’s always been sort of secondary works that they felt like they could let people touch. And in this case, they could take the star three-dimensional sculptural works from the collection and use those for alternative methods of teaching, or a tactile way of learning.

In fact, this horse head is my capture from the British Museum’s Parthenon collection, and my life-size printed copy of it was on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where I saw somebody putting his hands all over it. I thought he was going to pick it up or knock it over. And I almost went to stop him, but he turned around I realized he was visually impaired, and he was actually examining it with his hands. You wouldn’t be able to do that with the original marble—to actually explore it with your hands.

Until then, that particular use had not occurred to me. To me that was a compelling example of how, once the data’s out there, people will find their own uses for it. We don’t necessarily need to hand it to them on a silver platteruse it this way or use it that way. Let’s just get the data out there, and a visually impaired person will put their hands on it, and another person who wants to do something else will do something else with it.

Venus, Andy Warhol after Botticelli, 1985

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