Laser Scanning Museum Sculpture for Three-Dimensional Research

Three-dimensional scanning technologies have been utilized in industry for over twenty years but are increasingly used in many other fields. One of the exciting, perhaps unanticipated, uses of 3D measurement tools has been their adoption by museums for sculpture conservation, research, and interactive exhibits.

3D scanning is a perfect fit for documenting museum pieces. Museums, for example, typically have pieces that cannot or should not be touched, yet present tremendous opportunity for study, documentation, interactive presentation, or for scaled or one-to-one reproductions. The great news is that with a single 3D scan, all of the above can be achieved without direct physical contact with the original work of art.

Direct Dimensions has worked with museums and artists since our founding in 1995. In fact one of our early 3D laser scanning projects was actually an historic bronze bust for the US Navy. We later became involved in a sculpture study when approached by researchers at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) here in Baltimore, Maryland. We 3D laser scanned two bronze castings from the same edition of the piece calledTigre qui Marche (The Walking Tiger) by Antoine Louis Barye. The conservators at the BMA wanted to explore three-dimensional capture methods to virtually compare the shape and dimensions of these two pieces.

We used a close-range 3D laser scanning system to capture the two tigers and overlaid the digital models to virtually compare their deviations. The BMA was so pleased by the outcome of the Barye effort that they engaged Direct Dimensions again on a more extensive investigation. As they prepared a new traveling art exhibition calledMatisse: Painter as Sculptor, the curators were interested in applying the same 3D research techniques to illuminate the creative process behind Matisse as a sculptor.

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor

We focused on two sets of famous Matisse sculptures: different bronze castings of Reclining Nude I (Aurora) andMadeleine I & Madeleine II. In the case of theReclining Nude, curators were interested in comparing multiple castings to see how they may be related to one another. As for theMadeleines, there was a theory thatMadeleine IIhad been cast from the plaster cast ofMadeleine I. BMA sculpture curator Ann Boulton hoped that a dimensionally accurate 3D scan, detecting differences as small as tenths of a millimeter, might shed light on the theory.

After working closely with the BMA staff to understand their research interests, we decided to use a FARO ScanArm, a portable articulating arm with a laser line scanner, for the 3D capture process. The arm and scanner combination can acquire data with an accuracy of less than +/-0.002, allowing the fine hand-worked texture detail to be captured without ever touching the surface. The FARO equipment is also portable so the artwork never left the safety of the museum during the scanning.

Back in our office over the next few weeks, our DDI team used Innovmetrics PolyWorks software to process the raw laser data into high resolution 3D digital replicas of each of the sculptures. The 3D models of both sets of sculptures: theReclining Nude I (Aurora)andMadeleine I & Madeleine II, enabled exciting discoveries during the research.

Three different 3D scanned Reclining Nude I (Aurora) pieceswere superimposed over each other to perform the dimensional analysis. Differences are visualized using a range of colors to digitally indicate the deviation between each of the physical castings. The team at Direct Dimensions and the BMA worked together to discover that two of the casting were essentially identical (meaning that both had been cast from the same mold) while the third was approximately 4% smaller, indicating that it was a cast off or copy of one of the originals. This was our first major discovery.

TheMadeleine I & Madeleine IIanalysis differed from theReclining Nude I (Aurora)because entire superimposed models were not as helpful. The curators were trying to find specific similar shape characteristics, as such our technicians cut specific digital cross-sections from each of the models and compared these sections. The results from this analysis indicated that though large parts of the sculptures were different, the close measurements in the torso and head section indicated that the second sculpture was indeed created from the first. This second discovery added significant insight into Matisses artistic process.

In addition to enabling critical art research, our 3D scanning and analysis processes were highlighted in various presentations and videos that traveled with the exhibition. Plus this same data used primarily for research can also be used to create replicas for fund raising and for digital downloads for academics and students interested in 3D printing, for example.

Related Museum 3D Research Activities

TheMatisse: Painter as Sculptorexhibit is just one example of a fine art application for 3D scanning technologies. Over the years Direct Dimensions has also worked with MoMA, The National Gallery of Art, The Getty, The Smithsonian, The Walters Art Museum, of course, The Baltimore Museum of Art, and many other museums on various art conservation and research projects. 3D scanning for documentation and technical examinations of museum collections is just starting to gather steam and it is exciting to imagine what future research will bring.

In November 2013, the Smithsonian Institution is holding SI X 3D a gathering of 3D scanning experts and museum professionals for two days of broad discussions on the implications of digitizing museum collections. Direct Dimensions is a Major Sponsor of the SI X 3D event with the contribution of significant 3D scanning and post process activities supporting the Smithsonian for this event in particular. As such I will be featured at the event and will be participating in many of the activities and panel discussions. No question many other museums around the world find these concepts both valuable and exciting in terms of the possibilities that can be achieved by having collections digitized into 3D. I look forward to these on-going discussions and welcome your direct contact on these ideas. See for more on the SI X 3D event.

Links to related materials:

Scanning the Matisses by Direct Dimensions

Direct Dimensions ‘Sculpture’ website

Art Daily news article on Matisse exhibition

Research Book on Matisse as Sculptor (features 3D scanning images)

Academic guide on sculpture research

About the Author

Michael Raphael

Michael Raphael ... Michael earned a BS degree in Engineering Science and Mechanics from Virginia Tech, followed by a Masters of Engineering Administration from George Washington University. During his 10 years at Lockheed Martin as an engineer responsible for solving aerostructures manufacturing quality problems, Michael co-developed the FaroArm portable CMM and became the first user on the planet! In 1995, he founded Direct Dimensions, Inc., providing rapid solutions to 3D problems!