Nov 28, 2016 | By Tess

As anyone who has seen the botched Jesus fresco can attest, art conservation is an important and essential part of keeping some of the world’s greatest cultural artefacts alive. For paintings and traditional sculptures, most restoration processes have been discovered and perfected by professionals, but with a slew of new art materials, such as 3D printed plastics, being used, the restoration game is facing new challenges. Fortunately, a team of scientists from the University College London (UCL) Institute for Sustainable Heritage are experimenting and discovering new and effective ways of maintaining and restoring arts made from materials like ABS and PLA.

Botched Jesus Fresco restoration

As we’ve seen, 3D printing is becoming an increasingly popular medium for contemporary artists, who use the technology to create stunning and structurally complex pieces that either enhance performance and installation projects or function as artworks on their own. The initiative to develop restoration methods for artworks made through 3D printing and other rapid prototyping processes was undertaken by the team of UCL researchers after they realized that many 3D printing materials are susceptible to relatively quick degradation. Rather than have to deal with finding restorative processes when it may be too late to save contemporary art pieces, the research team are hoping to find solutions now, in order to avoid losing any significant contemporary 3D printed pieces in the future.

As part of the research project, the scientists from UCL have actually created a 3D printed artwork specifically for the purposes of testing restoration methods. The 3D printed sculpture, called “Out of the Cauldron,” was designed by engineer-cum-artist Tom Lomax. Resembling the Futurist aesthetic from the early 20th century, the colorful abstract sculpture was made using state-of-the-art 3D printing processes and can be downloaded for free by any interested maker.

"Out of the Cauldron" by Tom Lomax

As Lomax explains, “As an artist I previously had little idea of the conservation threat facing contemporary art—preferring to leave these issues for conservators and focus on the creative process. But while working on this project with UCL I began to realize that artists themselves have a crucial role to play.”

The effort to preemptively preserve and maintain contemporary artworks is being supported by Nanorestart, a research project funded by the EU Horizon 2020 that is dedicated to nanotechnologies and contemporary art. The project could help to preserve millions of contemporary art pieces through its development of new restorative techniques. According to the project researchers, these methods could include a “sunblock” coating to protect from light degradation, and more.

Bjork's 3D printed mask, by Neri Oxman

“Art is being transformed by fast-changing new technologies and it is therefore vital to preempt conservation issues, rather than react to them, if we are to preserve our best contemporary works for future generations. This research project will benefit both artists and academics alike–but ultimately it is in the best interests of the public that art and science combine to preserve works,” commented Carolien Coon, a researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage.

UCL also recently partnered with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for a knowledge exchange project through which artists and researchers explored different issues related to the preservation of digital and 3D printed art. The project, called “Design with Heritage,” has emphasized the importance of creating new and novel techniques for maintaining and preserving contemporary art pieces.

3D printed "Heart of Gold" by Brendon McNaughton

Of course, one of the benefits of 3D printed art is that the 3D models can be reproduced at will using additive manufacturing systems, providing somebody has kept hold of the STL files. However, for artworks that rely on technological glitches and errors or randomized generative design processes, this reproduction process can be more complicated, and other restorative techniques would therefore be necessary.

The research surrounding the new restorative methods along with the downloadable “Out of the Cauldron” sculpture was recently published in the journal Heritage Science under the name “Preserving Rapid Prototypes: A Review”.

 

 

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