3D Scanning and Museum Access
Adapted from a presentation by Cosmo Wenman to the California Association of Museums’ 2015 Conference panel on access
For the last three years I have been experimenting with the twin technologies of 3D capture and 3D printing. I’ve been going into museums—usually uninvited, just as a typical visitor would—and using a conventional digital camera to take hundreds of photographs of works that I’m interested in personally, but also that make good demonstrations of the potential for these technologies for all sorts of unanticipated uses.
One of the first large-scale 3D prints I made this way was a life-sized horse head from the British Museum’s Parthenon collection. The marble horse was reconstructed from about 70 photographs I took with a handheld camera, and processed with free photogrammetry software. In the image above, you can see a reconstruction of all the positions of my camera as I walked around the marble snapping photos. I printed the result full-scale with the original, and patinated the printed plastic, transforming it from marble to bronze.
But 3D models like this don’t need to be 3D printed. They can be used for onscreen visualizations, or milled in stone, or used for 2D illustrations, or however else you might use digital media. I expect at some point, some of my 3D captures will show up in video games and architecture. The point is that once a work has been digitized, it can be reused in any media, and there’s no requirement to plan, or anticipate, or approve what the end uses may be.
An example of this that made an impression on me about two years ago was when that same Parthenon horse head was on display at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, in 2013. The horse head was originally designed to hang over the Parthenon’s pediment, so it’s a little precarious. It can be tipped over easily.
Through the crowd, I saw someone, from behind, who had his hands on it, touching it all over, and I was just about to stop him before he knocked it over. But he turned around, and I realized he was blind, and that he was exploring that 2,000 design directly, tactilely, with his hands, in a way that he would never be permitted to do with the original in the British Museum.
I had never intended or imagined this particular use, but now that the data is out there, this experience can be replicated all over the world.
[Image: Pinterest board, “Others’ 3D Prints of Cosmo Wenman’s 3D Scans”]
Since then I’ve been aware of this potential for these technologies to be used specifically for access to art for people who might not otherwise be able to experience it; access, but not necessarily inside museums.
My experiments have been part demonstrations, part my own propaganda and marketing for my design services, but always with the specific goal of trying to create public awareness and eventually, with any luck, public demand for museums to begin digitizing their own collections and projecting the files outward, putting them online—releasing them without usage, copyright, or terms of service restrictions.
Museums should 3D scan their public domain works and make them freely available online so that people can access them at home or the workplace, make adaptations or copies, use them as research materials, or for whatever else they come up with.
It’s an inversion of the goal of creating access to a physical space. It’s taking a collection and projecting it outward so that people outside the museum can access the designs directly, wherever they happen to be.
What I’m advocating is not anticipating particular installations, particular uses, or particular audiences. It’s dumping the data online so that the users outside the museum can use it in ways that we could never anticipate or plan for.
People with a special interest in access issues might be the perfect candidates for agitating within their institutions for digitizing more works and making them accessible in this open-ended way.
Comment from Q&A session: Speaking to one of your points, I think it’s the Art Institute of Chicago that has digitized a lot of their permanent collection. So you can actually go online and download stuff from the Art Institute and then print it at home. I think they've released around 25 files.
Several museums have made gestures in the right direction, which got good press but don’t actually deliver useful results. Art Institute of Chicago and the Met, for example, encourage visitors to come in and make their own scans. Unfortunately, the results are usually quite crude. I see these efforts as akin to museums encouraging visitors to take selfies of themselves with the works. In the Met’s own words, “these scans aren’t intended to be definitive, museum-quality models. These are scans for fun, for sharing, and to inspire creativity.”
[Image: Original 12th-century Japanese sculpture, and low-quality 3D scan published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Those are worthwhile goals, but what’s frustrating is that some museums have been making extremely high quality 3D scans of works for their own conservation, reproduction, and internal study purposes. They’ve been doing this, in some cases, for well over a decade and they’re definitely not making that data accessible.
Examples of unpublished, inaccessible 3D scans:
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Berninis, Buddhas, Michelangelos and who-knows-what more
- Stanford University and the Galleria dell’Accademia’s Digital Michelangelo Project, with a billion-polygon 3D scan of David and several others
- Stanford University and Cantor Arts Center’s scans of numerous Rodin bronze hands, Inside Rodin’s Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery
- 3D scan of Donatello’s David, authorized by the Bargello and the Superintendent of Florence Cultural Heritage
- The Acropolis Museum’s 3D scans of the Parthenon friezes
- The British Museum’s Assyrian reliefs
- Art Institute of Chicago’s laser scans of Matisse’s bronze Back series
- Baltimore Museum of Art: Rodin’s The Thinker, as-yet-unpublished despite the announcement
- Downloadable 3D scans from the J. Paul Getty Museum
- The Louvre and Konica Minolta’s 2005 3D survey of the Venus de Milo, now devolved to a totally defunct, spam-filled project website
- The Louvre and Nintendo’s 2013 3D captures of Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and more, locked up inside a game-console/tour guide: “There are a lot of theories about the missing arms of the Venus de Milo, right? I said, ‘Let’s create all of those,’ but I was told, ‘No …’”
- The Louvre’s 2013–14 3D scan of Winged Victory, part of a multi-million dollar conservation project for which they solicited public donations
- University of Leicester’s 3D scans of Richard III’s remains
- The Van Gogh Museum’s 3D scans of Almond Blossom, Sunflowers, The Harvest, Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, and Boulevard de Clichy
This is a very small sampling. There are thousands more like these.
It’s time for the big players to step up and release the archival-quality scans they already have, and make that authoritative data freely accessible to everyone.
Also see my most recent post, Smithsonian 3D Scans Records Request
If you like this article, please click “Recommend” below.