Using 3D Printing Technology to Protect and Restore Museum and Library Collections

By on September 20th, 2018 in Usage

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 [Image:  Euronews ]
[Image: Euronews ]

Charles Goulding and Andressa Bonafe of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing and artifact restoration.

This article also available in Portuguese here / Este artigo também está disponível em português aqui.

The devastating fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum underlined the urgency of creating more effective ways to protect and preserve cultural patrimony. Recent initiatives and technological advancements shed light on how 3D scanning and 3D printing can revolutionize the study, restoration and replication of priceless artifacts, becoming invaluable tools in the mitigation of wide-ranging risks. R&D tax credits are available to support institutions striving to develop and implement digital preservation strategies to truly safeguard our museum and library collections.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software

  • Technological in nature

  • Elimination of uncertainty

  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

3D Printing and the Future of Museums

Recent examples of 3D scanning and 3D printing applications in museums point to three major potential benefits of such technologies:

I. Firstly, they allow for the replication and restoration of damaged or lost artifacts. For instance, in 2012, researchers at Harvard’s University Semitic Museum utilized 3D scanning and printing to replicate a ceramic lion that had been shattered 3,000 years ago in an ancient Mesopotamian city. They utilized a process called photomodeling, which consisted in building 3D models of the remaining fragments using a multitude of pictures, taken from hundreds of different angles. When brought together, these 3D renderings formed a semi-complete model of the original piece that was subsequently finalized using techniques inspired by other statues from the same period and location. Conventional restoration techniques are extremely time-consuming and expensive and rely on a very specific skill set; therefore, 3D modeling and printing could represent a promising alternative for widespread adoption.

 [Image via  Wired ]
[Image via Wired ]

II. Secondly, it makes collections available to wider audiences. The Smithsonian Institution has used 3D models to create replicas of certain items in its collection, making them more easily suitable for traveling exhibitions. Digitization emerges as an interesting alternative to traditional duplication methods, which often use rubber molds and plaster casts. In addition to being less time and labor-consuming, 3D scanning is also less invasive and more accurate, especially when utilizing laser scanners with micron-level precision. Such exact replicas of invaluable artifacts can allow for more widespread access to museum collections, as traveling exhibitions would no longer be hindered by the risks associated with handling and transportation along with consequently prohibitive insurance premiums.

 [Image via  New Atlas ]
[Image via New Atlas ]

In a similar effort to increase accessibility, the Virginia Historical Society utilized 3D scanning and printing to create a tactile exhibition. Their goal was to allow visually impaired visitors to touch and feel civil war artifacts, which included 3D printed replicas of General George S. Patton’s corncob pipe, General Robert E. Lee’s life mask (a mold taken of his face while he was alive), a wooden canteen, and a mining lamp.

III. Thirdly, 3D scanning and printing can enhance the museum experience both from a creative and an educational standpoint. Aiming to tap into this potential, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City has explored different ways of applying 3D printing technology. In 2012, the Met promoted a 3D scanning and printing hackathon aimed at evaluating the potential of such technologies in engaging artists and visitors. Using photogrammetry and freely-available 3D modeling software the museum encouraged participants to use the collection as departure points for new creations.

3D scanning and 3D printing could also revolutionize museums‚Äô educational initiatives, enabling previously unimaginable, hands-on experiences. In 2013, the American Museum of Natural History‚Äôs education department held a two-week camp called ‚ÄúCapturing Dinosaurs: Reconstructing Extinct Species through Digital Fabrication‚ÄĚ. High school students not only received an introduction to comparative fossil anatomy but also engaged in scanning, digitally modeling, and rebuilding dinosaurs‚Äô bones using 3D printers. This innovative initiative illustrates how technology can revolutionize paleontological studies and allow museums to provide engaging educational experiences.

 [Image:  Gizmodo ]
[Image: Gizmodo ]

Digital Preservation of Library Collections

Many of the nation’s great libraries have renowned collections of art and antiquities that heretofore have been relegated to storage.¬†Electronic books have eliminated¬†physical¬†book stacks and freed up substantial viewing spaces. A growing number of libraries¬†are using newly¬†available space to showcase their collectibles and antiques,¬†relocating¬†them from less vulnerable storage areas to the main patron areas.¬†This technology-driven change puts even more irreplaceable art and antiques at risk, which underlines the importance of implementing 3D scanning and 3D printing in libraries collections as well.

3D Scanning Technologies

Many technological advances have contributed to making museum applications of 3D printing possible. Developments in photogrammetry are possibly among the most important of them, particularly when it comes to the recreation of lost and destroyed artifacts. Photogrammetry is a range imaging technique that builds 3D models from sequences of overlapping 2D photographs. The method allows for the estimation of 3D structures, given the camera’s position and orientation, which may be obtained via local motion signals. Photogrammetry algorithms utilize the principles of solid photogrammetry to obtain parameters of orientation from subsequent frames creating a dense point cloud of the object. Developing highly accurate photogrammetric imagery processing software remains a challenge, particularly when it comes to achieving positional consistency in relation to ground truth measurement.

When compared to photogrammetry, laser scanning achieves higher accuracy, particularly in larger areas. However, it requires more complex equipment, which can be prohibitively expensive, particularly for institutions with limited resources, as was the case of Brazil’s National Museum. Meanwhile, most enhancements to photogrammetric technology have come from the software side, which translates into greater accessibility and lower costs. In fact, a growing number of photogrammetric solutions allow for the use of regular cameras and even smartphones. The image bellow portrays a 3D photogrammetry of the skull of Luzia, the oldest human remains ever found in Brazil, which were part of the National Museum collection.

 [Image via  Wikipedia ]
[Image via Wikipedia ]

Challenges Ahead

Recent applications of 3D scanning and printing shed light on how technological advances can revolutionize the fields of museology, archeology, among many others. Remaining challenges include developing cost-effective solutions accessible to museums worldwide, particularly in developing countries. These solutions must also take into account the frailty of artifacts, which frequently require special handling. Yet another challenge is dealing with 3D scanning and printing in massive scale. For instance, making sure that 3D models of the Smithsonian Institution’s 137 million-item collection remain available for future generations despite potential changes in technology and digital formats. Next steps could include assessing the viability of applying 3D scanning and printing technologies at an architectural scale, which could ensure the preservation of cultural heritage sites.


The loss of nearly invaluable artifacts in Rio de Janeiro highlights the urgency of creating more effective methods to protect and preserve our cultural heritage. 3D modeling and printing can be the answer to mitigating the risks of potential damage and loss of museum and library collections. In fact, crowd-sourced pictures could be a hope for reconstructing the Brazilian collection, especially as photogrammetric technology evolves. Similar efforts have been made to recreate priceless, iconic structures destroyed in the Syrian war, such as The Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, a replica of which was unveiled in 2016 and since then exhibited in various locations, including London, New York City, Dubai, as well as Florence and Arona, Italy.

 [Image:  The Institute for Digital Archaeology ]
[Image: The Institute for Digital Archaeology ]

Responsible for reconstructing the Arch, the Institute for Digital Archeology works in partnership with UNESCO to promote the Million Image Database project, a permanent, open-access archive of images of heritage material. As technology evolves, digital preservation may become the key to truly safeguarding cultural patrimony. 3D scanning and printing are invaluable tools for making sure that the treasures from our past remain accessible to future generations.

By Charles Goulding

Charles Goulding is the Founder and President of R&D Tax Savers, a New York-based firm dedicated to providing clients with quality R&D tax credits available to them. 3D printing carries business implications for companies working in the industry, for which R&D tax credits may be applicable.