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Making Your Own 3D Collection

The way that most of us—even those of us who work at museums—most commonly experience art is through images, both on screens and in books or other printed material. Which, as I think we can all agree, is a LOT different than seeing a work of art in person. Being in the same room with something, not to mention seeing the colors, details, size, scale, etc. firsthand is incredibly different than looking at a mediated version of that artwork. And this might be even more true for sculptures. Experiencing a 3D work from just one angle definitely does not provide a full picture. But what if there was another way to experience sculptural art that, while definitely not being a substitute for the real thing, would help with questions regarding scale and angles? This past week we partnered with artists/makers Tom Burtonwood (below with model) and Mike Moceri to explore scanning and 3D printing of the Art Institute’s artworks and begin to address that very question.

Until recently, 3D printing would have required expensive unwieldy hardware, but quickly it’s becoming very accessible in the form of affordable 3D printers and build-it-yourself kits. Using Tom and Mike’s Makerbots, we set up a pop-up fabrication lab in the Art Institute’s own Ryan Education Center. These printers fit the ‘Do it Yourself’, or DIY, homemade aesthetic with exposed circuit boards and wires. Instead of printing with ink, a plastic thread melts through a nozzle that builds the 3D print layer by layer.

In order to print sculptures from the collection, we first had to capture 3D scans of the objects. Surprisingly, there are really easy tools that help us do just this. Heading into the galleries with iPads and a free iPad app called 123D Catch, we took pictures of sculptures, making sure to capture them from all directions. The software takes these photographs and stitches them into a 3D model which, after some processing, can be used by the Makerbot printers.  The photography process itself was amazingly engaging, as it required a closer look at the objects to think about the angles, important visual details, and textures.

As the scans were cleaned up and formatted for the printers, a School of the Art Institute summer camp of 7-  to 10-year-olds stopped by to watch the printing and it became clear how cool they thought the process was. The kids were enthralled as mini-versions of the Art Institute’s collection emerged from the Makerbots. They couldn’t wait to touch, share, and talk about the replicas.

3D printing and scanning of museum collections allows for an exciting new kind of access to sculptural artworks. 3D scans can be shared on websites, such as the one run by Makerbot called Thingiverse. A person can download and print his or her own gallery of artworks in preparation for a museum visit or an artist can mash up and remix scans to create something new. Tom mashed up two items from the Art Institute’s collection, the Architectural Brick with Ogre Mask, Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) and the Mastiff (Tomb Figurine), Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220), 2nd century into the Ogre Puppy (below). This ability to transform and make your own unique collection facilitates a creative response to the Art Institute’s artworks.

What do you think? Is this truly revolutionary access to our collection, or is it a passing fad?