Looking Back: Feel the museum: three-dimensional printing

Visitors get ready for a big change in musty old museums

By Allison White

Unless instructed otherwise, one of the first rules when entering a museum or gallery is simply – please do not touch.


For another simple reason – objects are fragile and irreplaceable.

Yet, this rule will be starting to change in the next decade with the advancement of three-dimensional printing.

The era of the ‘please touch the museum’ is just around the corner, as I learned this past week while attending the British Columbia Museum Association annual museum conference in Parksville.

First, what is three-dimensional printing?

It is the process of making a solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model.

The printing is achieved when layers of material are laid down in different shapes, through use of a laser.

The scanning of the digital model used for printing is most notably done through use of a hand-held scanner.

Although versions of this technology have existed for nearly three decades, recent trends in democratizing access for the average consumer, both in terms of price and learning, is making it so the technology is no longer out of reach.

What does this mean for museums?

From conservation to education, collections access to exhibitions, the opportunities seem endless for exploration within the walls of almost any museum.

Larger institutions, such as the Smithsonian in Wash., DC, have been leaders in using this technology to bring the collections closer to the visitors: allowing a tangible experience with the objects.

Until now, digital technology implemented in museums has been largely screen-based.

Through use of websites, kiosks and video touchscreens, the use of three-dimensional printing to replicate and bring an object to life and place it in the hands of the visitor is something that has never happened before.

What does this mean for smaller institutions like the Maple Ridge Museum?

Certainly cost is the biggest barrier in attaining this technology for any small museum.

Yet, what came from this larger discussion at the BCMA conference was how as a museum community, we can share assets.

As one institution cannot shoulder the cost alone, what if it became a project for a number of museums in close proximity?

This year our museum worked with Burnaby Village Museum to unroll birch bark scrolls that were nearly 100 years old. These scrolls from George Sayers are something that would have never seen the light of day had we not been able to work with the conservation team at Burnaby Village.

The sharing of assets and information is an integral part of keeping museums, especially smaller institutions, relevant.

Although it might not be in our museum’s immediate future, the idea of being able to bring artifacts from our collection into the hands of the visitor, to be used as a learning tool, without having to worry about damage is definitely something that could well be a reality in the next decade through the collaboration of other like-minded museums.

Allison White is curator at the Maple Ridge Museum.

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