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Sara Ebright

Metrology

Please Touch the Artwork

3D scanning and printing provides the touch needed for museum exhibit

Published: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - 12:44

Have you ever walked through a museum and noticed a sculpture that you just wanted to reach out and touch? Of course you didn’t risk it because the first rule of museums is that you can look, but you don’t touch. But your desire to reach for certain pieces may have been exactly the reaction that the sculptor intended for you to have.

For example, during the 1500s, artisans started creating various new devices specifically for holding in the hand. The large and heavy hourglasses commonly used at that time became pocket watches, which easily fit in the palm. Similarly, small sculptures, sized to be held and touched, also became popular.

According to experts at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, sculptors may have designed these works to appeal to our sense of touch by incorporating pleasing shapes and textures specifically sized just for our hands.

But when sculptures are meant to be touched and held, how does a modern museum display these pieces while still protecting them?

Leveraging 3D technologies

The curators at The Walters wondered if there were ways to leverage new 3D technologies to create an exhibit that would allow and even encourage touching the sculptures. So they called Direct Dimensions Inc. (DDI), provider of product and service solutions for 3D measurement, inspection, and reverse engineering.

With extensive art and museum experience, including customers such as The National Gallery, MoMA, The Getty Museum, and Jeff Koons, DDI’s toolbox of 3D technologies was a natural fit for this project. A planning meeting was held to discuss the overall goals for the project and various methods for utilizing 3D technologies to realize the exhibit. It was determined that three types of 3D technologies would be used: 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and 3D printing.

In other words, the original sculptures would be laser scanned, digitally modeled, and then re-created using 3D printing. These reproductions could safely be touched.

The technical part

DDI technicians went to The Walters and spent a day scanning several original small bronze sculptures using two types of 3D lasers: a FARO ScanArm and a Konica Minolta Range 7. This equipment captured the exact shape and contours of the intricate pieces to an accuracy of about one-tenth of a millimeter.

Then, back in DDI’s office over the next few days, the modeling team used Innovmetric’s PolyWorks Modeler software and other tools to post-process the raw laser data into high-quality, “watertight” 3D digital replicas.

These final 3D models, stored in a mesh format known as STL (standard tessellation language), were then used to create physical copies of the original bronzes through a process popularly known as additive manufacturing, or more commonly 3D printing. In this case, an Objet 3D printer was used. In addition to the physical replicas, these digital data were also used to visualize the sculptures in 3D on the web and to make digital renderings of the pieces.


Original:Triton with Young Seated on Tortoise. Italian 16.5 in.
Click for larger image.

Digital 3D rendering.
Click for larger image.

The sculpture replications (and originals) were included in The Walters exhibit “Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture,” curated in conjunction with The Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute of The Johns Hopkins University.

At the exhibit attendees were invited to handle the replicas to their hearts’ content. In addition to handling the artwork, they were also invited to give their reactions to the tactile sensations in a scientific survey created by The Mind/Brain Institute. The surveys helped scientists at Hopkins in their study of touch and corresponding neural activity.


Click for larger image.

The sculpture scanning project was a huge success, allowing The Walters to display its bronze sculptures in a new and interesting way, giving exhibit attendees the chance to touch and hold exact replicas of these highly tactile works of art, and providing The Mind/Brain institute with the opportunity to gather valuable data—all thanks to the use of 3D technologies.

Be sure to visit Direct Dimensions at booth No. 307 during the Coordinate Metrology Systems Conference (CMSC) in New Orleans, July 16–20, 2012.

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About The Author

Sara Ebright’s picture

Sara Ebright

Sara Ebright is the marketing and administrative manager for Direct Dimensions Inc., provider of product and service solutions for 3D measurement, inspection, and reverse engineering.