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Literary Excavations

Topical Tuesday: 3D Printing Part II


3D Imaging Technology:

A look at current applications in the field of cultural heritage preservation



As 3D imaging becomes more ubiquitous, its applications in cultural heritage preservation continue to proliferate. While 3D imaging does not replace other preservation technologies and techniques completely, it provides new possibilities. Not only can 3D imaging aid in documentation, research and replication for professional use, but it also creates new educational opportunities for the patrons of cultural heritage institutions. According to Wahiowiak & Karas (2009), “In a North American context, 3D scanning of cultural material continues to be new and largely uncharted territory”; however, “the success of 3D scanning projects has resulted in the recent expansion of commercial 3D technology designed with an eye to heritage applications” (p. 143). This makes it an exciting and largely experimental time for cultural heritage institutions, who are now discovering the limits and capabilities of this technology.

Advantages of the Technology:

According to Wahiowiak & Karas, “The cost and complexity of 3D imaging technologies have made 3D scanning impractical for many heritage institutions in the past, but this is changing, as an increasing number of commercial systems are being tailored and marketed for heritage applications” (p. 141). As institutions use the technology in new ways and explore its capabilities and limitations, the technology will presumably improve as vendors strive to meet new demands. Currently, there are already many applications and advantages to 3D imaging technology. “3D scanning produces a high-precision digital reference document that records condition, provides a virtual model for replication, and makes possible easy mass distribution of digital data” (Wahiowiak & Karas, 2009, p. 141). While the scanner cannot provide information about the sub-surface of an artifact, it can provide the exact dimensions of its surface–down to every chip or crack “to the sub-millimeter level” (Wahiowiak & Karas, 2009, p. 142).

This technology has allowed for better documentation of objects which would normally not last long in their current condition. In Italy, 3D imaging has been applied to waterlogged wooden objects from shipwrecks requiring documentation and restoration (Bandiera, Alfonso & Auriemma, 2009). Ideally, the preservation of such objects would be taken care of immediately, on-site, but this is a time-consuming and expensive process. As a compromise, institutions such as the University of Salento, have been experimenting with imaging technologies to record the original state of objects when they are found. Since these waterlogged objects begin to rapidly deteriorate once they are removed from the water (and often cannot be saved), this allows each object to be studied off-site, at a later time. In addition, the software offers “innovative analysis tools ranging from the possibility to zoom in on the model to examine and measure tiny surface details or to detect traces left by tool marks, understand woodworking, to the possibility of creating sectional views on the object without destroying it” (Bandiera, Alfonso & Auriemma, 2015, p. 21). And while the original may be lost, the 3D image can still be enjoyed by patrons virtually, and replicas can be produced quite rapidly for the purposes of exhibits and displays.

The London Natural History Museum recently discovered how the Stegosaurus might once have moved using 3D imaging technology. The museum holds the most complete skeleton of a Stegosaurus in the world. Museum staff used photogrammetry, computer tomography and surface laser mapping to scan the Stegosaurus’ body, then CT-scanned and X-rayed the skull. Several copies of the backplates, tail spikes and skull were made, as well as a 3D image of the dinosaur’s brain. The 3D image of the brain is visible within a transparent skull for the patrons of the museum, as well as three replicas of the backplates, tail spikes and skull. This could not have been possible without the use of 3D imaging technology, since the original bones are extremely brittle and difficult to handle. Any sort of traditional molding and casting would have almost definitely damaged the original. Additionally, the file of the 3D image can now be shared globally, and replicas created for study and enjoyment in other cultural heritage institutions around the world. (Crouse, 2015)

Perhaps one of the more unique examples of how this technology is providing greater access, is the new technology, Tooteko. A 3D printed replica of a cultural heritage object is combined with sensors and phone application technology to create an audio-tactile experience for the blind. According to Agnano, et al. (2015), “The transmission of knowledge for blind people occurs prevalently through touch, through the exploration of tangible objects…In fact, tactile and hearing perception often help the formulation of mental images of the blind, compensating for sight” (p. 207). To achieve this experience, sensory “hotspots” are placed at specific points on the 3D printed replica. The user wears a ring with a built-in sensor, and as they explore the object with their hands, the ring passes over these “hotspots” and transmits embedded information to an app on the user’s phone. The app will produce audio relating to the specific “hotspot” on the replica. This means that pieces of great scale or value which could not normally be explored in this way, are now more widely accessible. Agnano et al. (2015) points out that this experience of augmented reality may also open-up new ways of educating children in museums, who also rely on physical touch to explore the world. But perhaps most profoundly, this use of 3D printing “can lead the visually impaired to a more complete life and an autonomous exploration of the world” (Agnano, 2015, p. 207).

*To be continued next Topical Tuesday



Anderson, C. (2005). Digital Preservation: Will your files stand the test of time? Library Hi Tech

News, 22(6), 9-10.

Bandiera, A., Alfonso, C., & Auriemma, R. (2015). Active and passive 3D imaging technologies

applied to waterlogged wooden artifacts from shipwrecks. The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, Underwater 3D Recording and Modeling, XL-5/W5, 15-23. doi:10.5194/isprsarchives-XL-5-W5-15-2015

Crouse, M. (2015). 3D printed bones reveal stegosaurus secrets. Product Design & Development.

Retrieved from

D’Agnano, F., Balletti, C., Guerra, F., & Vernier, P. (2015). Tooteko: A case study of augmented

reality for an accessible cultural heritage. Digitization, 3D printing, and sensors for an audio-tactile experience. The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, 3D Virtual Reconstruction and Visualization of Complex Architectures, XL-5/W4, 207-213. doi:10.5194/isprsarchives-XL-5-W4-207-2015

Wachowiak, M.J., Karas, B.V. (2009). 3D scanning and replication for museum and cultural

heritage applications. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 48(2), 141-158. Retrieved from:

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