3D And Museums: Feeling The Art


Museums nowadays are opening their doors to 3D technology. No, this is not a dream. And we are not talking about mere on-line virtual tours of museums. We are talking about actual three-dimensional rendering of the collections hosted by museums, such as artefacts, sculptures and archaeological evidences. Following the motto “The more you see, the more you know ”, some institutions started programs aiming to the digitalization in 3D of their collections.

Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution is surely the leader in this particular field. Its project aims to create a 3D digital archive of historic artefacts. As we can understand, the task is both fascinating and demanding: the Smithsonian hosts the highest number of objects in the world, about 137 million (at the moment, only 1% of them is on display). The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office started by digitalizing about 10% of the collection. The staff is operating rapid capture photography workflows for two-dimensional collections, and exploring innovations to speed up the capture of their three-dimensional collections, preferably in 3D. The program is annually financed by the institution itself with $ 350,000, but the project is even more ambitious: moving the 3D lab from a suburban warehouse in Maryland to a new innovation center planned for the National Mall. There, the public would be able to see some of the latest 3D technology and even make its own 3D prints of museum objects in a “maker lab.” Within minutes, a 3D printer can create a plastic replica of an object by reproducing the digital model layer by layer.

Time is a key factor. Digitalizing in 3-dimensions the entire collection would take some decades (and this capturing the entire collection at a rate of 1 item per minute with a 24/7 effort!). For other digitization efforts, the Smithsonian has engaged private partners and may even recruit volunteers to help.

Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian Secretary, affirms: “Museums face a greater challenge than the digitization of documents in libraries or archives because museum artefacts are often three-dimensional”.


At the present time the institution performed the scanning of more than 20 artefacts for interactive viewing with technology provided by Autodesk and 3D Systems. The museum has also given birth to the so called Smithsonian’s X 3D Explorer web portal, where users not only can view the 3D rendering, but even download such data (you have to be registered to do so) for personal and educational purposes. Despite the poor number of scanned objects, their importance is surely significant: there is the President Lincoln’s head, along with the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer, an ancient  Cosmic Buddha from China, the American Revolution’s Gunboat Philadelphia.

Günter Waibel, the 3D-program Director, strongly believes in opening this kind of technology to the public. In fact, a Facebook page was created, where are not only posted the 3D images, but also videos demonstrating how the scanning is performed. Waibel states: “The project is changing the museums core functions: curators and educators can use 3D data as the scaffolding to tell stories or send students on a quest of discovery. Conservators can benchmark today’s condition state of a collection item against a past state – a deviation analysis of 3D data will tell them exactly what changes have occurred, raw data can be downloaded to support further inquiry and 3D printing”.

Harvard University Semitic Museum


Harvard University Semitic Museum used 3D technology in a more specific way. The aim was to reconstruct a fully restored model of the so called Nuzi Lion, a fragmentary statue excavated in 1930 from the Yorghan Tepe (ancient Nuzi), in modern Iraq. To achieve that, the Museum asked for the help of sector specialists, such as the Learning Sites’ staff. The lion was then “photo-modelled”: hundreds of photographs were taken from different angles to create a three-dimensional rendering of each fragment; subsequently, the parts have been assembled together with a specific software to form a 1:1 physical replica printed in high-density foam.

The project was a success. Joseph Greene, Deputy Director and Curator at the Semitic Museum, confirms: “3D imaging with or without printing is a perfect way to study, conserve, share and teach using objects; it can be used not only for objects, but also for standing monuments”. “The Semitic Museum – continues Greene – has thousands of other objects this technique could be applied to, as do other museums around the world”.

Asian Art Museum (San Francisco)


[The Dreambox team at work]

Although the museum does not have a true 3D project, it opened its doors to this technology. The museum invited its loyal visitors, together with Autodesk and the MakerBot Community (friends of the museum, artists and DIY-makers), at a “3D Scanathon”, allowing them to capture three-dimensionally (for a week) whatever object they wished, asking only that they include five pieces the museum deemed historically significant and good for scanning. The project did not use any professional scanning software, but 123d catch, a free photogrammetry software (yes, everyone can download it!). The most important aspect of this initiative was that it gave the opportunity to anyone to create 3D models of the museum objects using their DSLRs or their mobiles/tablets. Thanks to this initiative, the museum showed that a new way to interact with the public is possible. To be noted: at the time of the Scanathon, the Museum did not own a printer. This only came a year later in the form of a 3D printing vending machine!

Metropolitan Museum of Art


[Jean-Antoine Houdon, Bather: two examples of derivation for 3D printing]

A similar project was conducted by the Met. The museum has, in fact, started a fruitful interaction with the MakerBot Community with the purpose of practicing and discussing the emergence of 3D capturing and printing techniques. Last June 2013, the community was welcomed into the museum to scan (again using 123d catch) and print objects belonging to its collections in a “Met MackerBot Hackathon”. The replicas have been created by using the so called “The Replicator”, perhaps the most innovative 3D printer on the market. The initiative, which aimed to the evaluation of the potential of 3D scanning and printing technologies to engage visitors and artists in the museum collections, was a true success.

But other projects are starting to surface: archaeologists at Cornell have 3-D printed Cuneiform tablets; researchers at Loughborough University in the U.K. are restoring artefacts from China’s Forbidden City using 3-D printers; and students at Texas A&M are recreating Roman tools with the same methods.

Let’s think social!


The use of 3D technology by museums involves social networks as well. Showing either on the museum website or on social platforms the three-dimensional models of a collection is surely positive: on-line communication would be enriched by new and appealing contents. Such data could be used as an indicator of expertise and professionalism; and, secondly, it could attract new visitors among the technology-communities, probably not very used to visiting museums.

Furthermore, activities previously shown by the Asian Art Museum and the Met underlined that –thanks to easily available free softwares – visitors can play a dynamic and active role. More and more people go to museums not only to see, but to do something. Don Undeen, Senior Manager of the MediaLab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains: “3D tools and activities are becoming accessible to a wide range of people. The concept is to give the chance to the public to create a 3D image; people can consider themselves participating in the museums’ project, but more important the museum is sharing information as freely as possible.”


[The Met profile on Thingiverse]

Websites such as Thingiverse host three-dimensional models of museum collections (which can also be downloaded). Once such images are uploaded by museums or simple visitors, they can be defined as ‘social objects’. Therefore, the objects can be accessible by a wider number of people, who will be then interested in the museum itself.

Thus, it seems that 3D technology is leading to a new point of view from which to understand museums and their relationship with the public. This is even stated by Waibel: “Now museums are really rethinking their relationship with their audience, and they’re trying to empower their audiences to help them along whatever learning journey they’re on.” The chance for anyone to get involved with museums is increasing; at the same time, the costs of 3D scanners and printers are decreasing. The two factors are changing the ways by which museums collect, conserve and study the artefacts.

As we have seen, only few museums at the moment are conducting 3D technology projects. Although we are still at the very beginning, the results are encouraging. If well-known institutions such as the Met or the Smithsonian will keep their projects up-to-date, we can be sure that the number of such projects will be higher in the next few years. For small museums, things are definitely more complicated considering the costs of softwares and tools. However, free (though not professional) softwares represent a valid help to produce three-dimensional models.

I personally believe that this technology could not only bring a higher number of visitors to the museums, but it could even revive and encourage their mutual relationship. On this particular aspect also agree Liz Neely, Director of Digital Information and Access at The Art Institute of Chicago, and Miriam Langer, Professor of Media Arts & Cultural Technology at New Mexico Highlands University: “One thing we do know is that encouraging museum visitors to look closely, to connect with an object through scanning, and to learn its history and story through printing and sharing, fits the mission of most museums. It’s time to ‘Feel the Museum’.

To conclude, I would like to quote Waibel’s words one last time: “No technology is ever going to replace the feeling of seeing an original artefact in person. But this technology gives us more ways to learn about our collection and tell our stories in new ways to more than just museum visitors.”

As always, then, #svegliamuseo, and (allow me this one)… Let’s tech-up!

Giacomo Pullano @PullanoGiacomo


Giacomo Pullano, 29 years old, a recent graduate in Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton (UK). He had previously earned a BA in Cultural Heritage at the University of Pisa with a specialization in Archaeology.

Giacomo is fascinated by museums, and by their potentiality to bring near and engage visitors with the history and the culture of a place. For this reason, he has just started a Master in New Media Communication.

He is also passionate about digital photography, and has attended a course of photography applied to Cultural Heritage. In the future he would like to put his passion at service for museum projects. For now, he has opened a blog on his passion: “If I Were a Photographer“.

You can also see his work on Flickr, and feel free to contact him on LinkedIn or by email.