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Will 3D printing play a role in the decolonization of museums?

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In recent years, 3D scanning and printing have taken on increasingly important roles in the museal context, used by conservationists and archaeologists to digitally archive fragile or decaying artefacts. At Oxford University, for instance, historical instruments are being replicated using 3D printing, which allows them to be handled and even played. More than providing a way to digitally archive and reproduce relics, 3D scanning and printing technologies are also beginning to play a role in the decolonization of museums.

Museums around the Western world house artefacts from all around the globe, many of which were acquired through the colonization and exploitation of lands and cultures. Over the past decade or so, calls for museums to return historical and culturally relevant items to their home countries has grown. In 2017, for instance, French prime minister Emmanuel Macron acknowledged these efforts on a trip to Burkina Faso, pledging to support the repatriation of African heritage items.

The question of who should be a steward of the world’s historical artefacts is a tricky one. On the one hand, some argue that Western museums often have more resources to maintain ancient pieces. On the other hand, much of that wealth is a result of a sordid colonial past, which saw certain nations become rich at the expense of others. In many cases, the historical artefacts in question also have cultural and spiritual importance, which can be lost in a museum context. All that to say, it’s complicated. But the repatriation of certain items does seem like a step in the right direction.

3D printed artefact museums
3D printed replica of 17th century recorder by the University of Oxford

To facilitate the repatriation process, a team at the University of Brighton in the UK is turning 3D scanning methods, such as photogrammetry, and 3D printing. The combination of technologies can enable museums to digitally store their collections and reproduce them in physical form, so that they can return the original items to their countries of origin.

As these technologies become increasingly accessible, more museums will be able to digitize their collections, the research team says, which means that it will become easier to repatriate any items that are requested. The digital files of each artefact could also make it easier for people around the world to see and experience the piece in question. In museums, 3D printed replicas can even be handled by visitors, making for a more engaging, tactile experience. 

The research conducted at the University of Brighton, led by Myrsini Samaroudi and Dr. Karina Rodriguez Echavarria, is investigating how museum goers and audiences respond to 3D printed replicas. In a finding that would likely unsettle Walter Benjamin, who was wary of the mechanical reproduction of art, the researchers say that the authenticity of the artefact is not necessarily the most important thing to a museum visitor.

“Museums are not static organizations,” they say. “They are ever evolving and driven by society changes, funding conditions and other local and global challenges. Our connected and global society recognizes that it is time for the museum to promote new values and play a different role… it isn’t about erasing our past, but rather reconciling with it while promoting universal values.”  

It should be noted that 3D printing should not be a condition for repatriation of historical goods. That is, museums should not necessarily require that they keep the artefact (even as a replica) to send items to their rightful homes. If, however, a 3D printed replica makes repatriation easier for all sides, then it is definitely worth exploring more.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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