3D Imaging Provides Just the Touch for Museums

There is no question that museums are expressing strong interest in the use of 3D. Those of us that follow tech news feeds are seeing near daily examples of museums around the world using 3D scanning to document all kinds of collection items from prehistoric natural artifacts to man-made modern sculpture.

There is perhaps no better example of museum-based 3D scanning then my friends at The Smithsonian, becoming known affectionately as the two laser cowboys, Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo. Well lets face it, when The Smithsonian does it, it gets attention.

Here is a story about a project we participated in that went beyond just the scanning. This project went full circle to the fabrication of accurate physical reproductions of the items using 3D printing still a bit new to the museums, but growing fast. For some reason, the idea of actually making copies of precious artifacts evokes fears of fraud and abuse, which to me is misguided relative to the tremendous benefits.

Have you ever walked through a museum and seen a sculpture that you just wanted to reach out and touch? Sure, but you didnt because the first rule of museums is that you can look – but you do not touch. Ironically, your desire to reach for certain pieces may have been exactly the reaction that the sculptor intended for you to feel.

According to Dr. Joaneath Spicer, the Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at The Walters Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, Sculptors may have designed these works to appeal to our sense of touch by incorporating pleasing shapes and textures specifically sized just for our hands.

But when sculptures are meant to be touched and even held, how does a modern art museum with no-touch rules present these pieces while still protecting them?

Leveraging 3D Technologies

In late 2010, the curators at The Walters Art Museum wondered if there were ways to leverage new 3D technologies to create an exhibit that would allow and even encourage touching certain sculptures. As such, and given this was in Baltimore – they called us at Direct Dimensions.

With our extensive art and museum 3D scanning experience, including customers such as The National Gallery in Washington DC, MoMA in New York City, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and world-renowned modern sculptor Jeff Koons, our toolbox of 3D technologies was a natural fit. I attended a planning meeting to discuss the overall goals for an art touch project and briefed the museum staff on various methods for utilizing 3D technologies to realize the exhibit. We determined that three types of 3D technologies would be used: 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and 3D printing. In other words, the original sculptures would be laser scanned, digitally modeled, and then re-created using 3D printing. These reproductions could surely be touched!

The Technical Part

Our technicians went to The Walters in downtown Baltimore and spent a day 3D scanning several original small bronze sculptures using two types of close-range 3D lasers: a FARO ScanArm and a Konica Minolta Range 7. This equipment captured the exact shape and contours of the small intricate pieces to an accuracy of about a tenth of a millimeter. Then, back in our office over the next few days, our modeling team used Innovmetrics PolyWorks software to post-process the raw laser data into high quality watertight 3D digital replicas of the originals. They then used ZBrush modeling software to digital touch-up these models in the hidden areas difficult to scan.

These final 3D models, in a mesh format known as STL, were then used to create physical copies of the original bronzes through a process known as additive manufacturing, or more popularly as 3D printing. In addition to the physical replicas, the digital data was also used to visualize the sculptures in 3D on the web and to make digital renderings of the pieces.

The sculpture replications (and originals) were displayed in The Walters exhibit Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture, curated in conjunction with the Mind/Brain Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Exhibit attendees were invited to handle the replicas to their hearts content. In addition to handling the artwork they were also invited to give their reactions to the tactile sensations in a scientific survey created by the Mind/Brain Institute. The survey helped scientists at Hopkins study touch and corresponding neural activity.

The Please Touch museum exhibit was a huge success all thanks to the use of 3D imaging, 3D modeling, and 3D printing technologies. As noted earlier, we have deep experience with these tools for museum applications. I expect to continue this topic soon in LiDAR News with more amazing stories at the intersection of art & 3D.


See also:

Website for The Walters Art Museum exhibit: http://thewalters.org/news/releases/pressdetail.aspx?e_id=333

The Walters Venus sculpture online in interactive 3D at SketchFab: http://skfb.ly/jig2da

Sculpture Scanning Process Graphic: http://www.directdimensions.com/port_projects.php?fileName=museumbronzeart

A Local Newspaper Article on art exhibit: