How to Restore and Preserve Artifacts with 3D Printing Technologies?

How to Restore and Preserve Artifacts with 3D Printing Technologies

From restoration to preservation—here’s how 3D printing technologies are used in the art and museum industry. 

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of making three-dimensional (3D) solid objects from a digital file or model. It uses an additive process that adds successive layers of material until the object is created. 3D printing can produce complex and detailed shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods, which involve removing material through carving, milling or machining.

While 3D printing technology is commonly used for manufacturing in the automobile and jewelry industry, it can also have many other uses, particularly in the art restoration and preservation industry. Here is how 3D printing can restore and preserve museum artifacts. 

Restoration

In the past, if a piece of museum artifact was missing or needed repairing, the museum needed to find a skilled artist to handcraft and sculpt another piece of the artifact. But, it’s nearly impossible to create an identical replacement, and it can be very time-consuming and expensive. However, we can use 3D scanning and printing to print out identical replacements in a much shorter time with modern-day technologies. The replaced pieces can also be replicated many times while being identical to the original. 

For instance, back in 2018, The Museum Tesoro dei Granduchi of Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy, collaborated with Mattia Mercante, a restorer of cultural heritage, to restore a multi-material reliquary, which is a shrine that contains sacred relics. The reliquary features lots of biblical details, like the crucifixion of Christ, and is made up of different types of materials (glass, fabric, metal, rock crystal, limestones and shells). It has been restored previously, but some parts of the frame are missing decorations that have not been reconstructable due to the lack of techniques. 

However, Mercante was able to reconstruct the missing decorations of the frame using 3D technologies. He and his team first used a 3D scanner to scan the overall structure, which they later modeled and then printed the missing decorations. They then colored the decorations to match the reliquary and inserted them into the artwork. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the original and the restored piece in plain sight. However, all restorations are visible under UV light, making it easier to identify and modify them if necessary. This shows how advanced and compatible 3D technologies are. 

While many artifacts are damaged or missing parts, 3D printing technologies allow restoration experts to restore intricate details that would otherwise be impossible to reproduce. Even though the replica is made with a different material than the original, people would not be able to tell them apart. 

Preservation

In terms of preserving historical artifacts and relics, most museums and art institutions often document the artifact with words or pictures. However, words alone cannot accurately describe the textures or details of the relics. Artifacts are often three-dimensional and contain many details which are hand-painted or sculpted. Therefore, it is difficult to capture every detail of those artifacts using photos alone. However, 3D technologies can produce scanned objects accurately and efficiently and capture all those fine details, like brush strokes or cracks. 3D objects can be rescaled and printed, so people can physically touch and feel the textures of such artifacts.

On top of that, most artifacts are not publicly showcased. They are usually in storage or can only be seen in archives. However, most archives, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives, are not disclosed to the public and are only accessible to Museum staff and qualified scholarly researchers. This is because those archives often contain physical documents that may wear out and deteriorate over time and exposure, risking damage to the artifacts. However, with 3D technologies, artifacts can be scanned and documented in electronic form instead of physical, making them available to researchers as well as the general public. 

One example is the Scan the World project, a digital archive of sculptures, landmarks, and monuments from around the world using 3D technology. They utilize 3D scanning technologies to scan historical objects and landmarks and convert them into digital files. Every artifact is free to view and download. The project launched in 2014 and currently boasts over 16,000 objects in its collection, and it has collaborated with over 50 cultural institutions. Because these 3D files are taken directly from the original artwork or artifacts, they hold the same cultural value as the physical work, and every detail is preserved using 3D technologies. 

Museums can even use 3D printing technologies to print out identical replicas of the originals and lend them to other institutions for viewing purposes without putting the originals at risk of damage during display or transportation. 

The above examples depict how 3D technologies are helping to restore and preserve artifacts. However, 3D technologies are still not widely used in art restoration and preservation due to the high costs of materials and machines. But with 3D printing gradually becoming more accessible to people, we hope to see 3D technologies expand to more art institutions and other areas. 

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Header image courtesy of iStock

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