Apr 29 2013

Touching a “Digital Brushstroke”: 3D Printing at the Brooklyn Museum

Guest Post, Members

This is a guest post by Rachel Ropeik, Museum Educator at Brooklyn Museum. For more details, check out the 3Dprinting tag on the Brooklyn Museum blog.

For lots of us who pay attention to where technology and the museum come together, it sure feels like 3D printing is the latest craze sweeping the nation. Literally. From New York to Chicago to San Francisco (and many more), museums are exploring how 3D prints can help people engage with their collections.  Hive member organizations are all over it; that Chicago link leads to an interview about an Art Institute project, and at a recent Hive NYC monthly meet-up, we heard about some of the great ways the American Museum of Natural History is bringing 3D printing into play.  The Center for the Future of Museums from the American Alliance of Museums highlighted this kind of digital fabrication as a development to watch in their 2013 issue of Trendswatch, and at the Brooklyn Museum, we’re interested to see how it might work for us.

A little over a month ago, Shelley Bernstein (@shell7), our Chief of Technology, came to me with an idea. She’s started a program where the museum’s developers get to devote some work time to experimental projects that interest them, and the first one up was 3D printing, something David Huerta (@huertanix) has been paying attention to for a long time. Shelley wanted to know if there were education programs where this technology might help visitors connect with artwork, and the first thing that came to mind was our Sensory Tour, which is offered twice a month for visitors with visual impairments, as well as anyone who’s interested in experiencing art with more than just the sense of sight.

Technology can be a great way to help people engage with art in other ways than just looking, especially since we’re not usually allowed to touch in museums. We use specially printed raised line drawings (the lines are literally raised up from the paper) to let people feel lines and shapes. We use iPads to magnify images for people with low vision. Why not 3D prints to let people feel the contours of a sculpture?

Once an interdepartmental team worked together to figure out an object that would fit the requirements for successful 3D printing, David printed us several copies of Randolph Rogers’ Lost Pleiad, and our team of educators hit the galleries with an eager audience who came to focus on this month’s theme: “Fine Lines: Poetry and Art.” We aimed to connect lines on paper, lines of movement, and lines of poetry, while visiting the permanent collection and one of the museum’s current exhibitions, Fine Lines: American Drawings from the Brooklyn Museum. And since, as one of the educators said, 3D printing is “a new way of making lines; a digital brushstroke,” it seemed like a great fit.

So?  Survey says…

Survey says we need to keep refining how we use 3D prints. Our goal is always to use our teaching tools to help our groups make a deeper connection to the original artwork. 3D printing is definitely cool and new and fun, and our Sensory Tour group got excited and interested in the snazzy technology factor, looking at the 3D prints closely, turning them over, comparing them to the original marble sculpture.

Visitors examining the 3D print of Randolph Rogers' "The Lost Pleiad", Brooklyn Museum.

If you want to have a visual version of that detailed, 360-degree looking, you can check out the animation one of our blog commenters, Sebastian Heath, made based on the file uploaded to Thingiverse.

Where the jury’s still out for me is how we can use these models in a more meaningful way than just as neato plastic replicas. Despite the cool factor, our group that night really got their conversation on when they had samples of marble and gauzy scarves to touch and compare. The low-tech solution seemed to invite more creative responses than the high-tech.

So how can we move forward and improve the ways we use 3D printing in our galleries?  What questions can we ask to prompt visitors? What kinds of manipulating could we do to get people to focus on specific elements of the sculpture (Alastair Somerville talks about this issue over here)?  These are some of the questions we’ll be asking ourselves in the coming months. And if you’ve got brilliant insights about success with 3D printing in museums, please feel free to share!

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