Jul 17, 2017 | By Julia

A museum in Indianapolis is changing the digitization game: the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, home of the 23rd U.S. president, is now allowing visitors to 3D print replicas of its artifacts for free. The unique service is part of the museum’s New Century eCollection project, which will oversee the digitization of the Site’s 10,000-piece collection, ranging from statues and ornaments to gifts to the late Harrison.

As museums around the world enter a new era of documentation and archiving technology, many are faced with the daunting task of digitizing their collections. It’s a labour-intensive process that requires many hours of scanning and processing, and one that must be repeated regularly as aging digital technologies become obsolescent.

But that could be about to change: as 3D printing technology continues to boom, the Indianapolis museum shows that additive manufacturing could provide a viable solution to the ongoing issue of digitization. While the Presidential Site is not the first museum to incorporate 3D printing into its organization, it is one of the few doing so in the world.

“We recognize that this is an important endeavor—making sure that we’re relevant to future generations,” said the museum’s president and CEO, Charles Hyde. “We don’t have the luxury of letting things remain as they are.”

The historic museum houses the original hardware, fixtures and furnishings of the 23rd US president’s home, including walnut doors, presidential china, and an Oriental rug from the 19th century. Particularly remarkable pieces include a wooden Centennial cane etched with Harrison’s presidential predecessors, and an 1880s-era armchair made from bobcat fur and Texas Longhorn horns.

Under the new eCollection initiative, these types of artifacts would be scanned along with about 90 percent of the museum items not on public display. According to Hyde, the idea is for students, researchers, and collectors to be able to peruse and 3D print the collection at their leisure.

Staff at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site first floated the idea of an eCollection initiative in 2014, in addressing the concern of expansion. It’s an ongoing challenge for virtually museums nowadays, notes Daniel Incandela, chief marketing officer of Return Path and former director of new media at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“It is becoming increasingly more competitive [for museums] to grow their membership, to engage with the community, to drive fundraising,” Incandela said. “And I think the only way to do that is to demonstrate more value on a bigger scale, and digital does that.”

Over the past two years, the Site’s eCollection initiative won broad support from museum stakeholders. Ultimately, it was a $80,000 funding package which put the gears in motion.

But how to increase digital engagement without losing the physical experience of museum-going? Officials at the Site figured 3D printing could enable people to interact with the museum’s collection in a tactile way, without having to be there in person.

“This is fairly new—a lot of museums are still focusing on 2-D scanning, like paper and photographs, because it’s a huge amount of their collections and it’s easy,” said Jenny Johnson, head of digitization services at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Library.

While museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian already allow 3D printing, these institutions have serious restrictions on which artifacts can be viewed online and 3D printed. The Harrison Site, on the other hand, will aim to make nearly all of its collection digitally available.

According to Johnson, another benefit of 3D printing artifacts is that it could pique interest, allowing the public to engage with a museum’s collection before visiting. Moreover, 3D printed replicas can be handled at will, offering a useful corrective to the age-old “don’t touch” policy implemented in most museums.

“People need to make sense of the objects and artifacts not only in terms of visual aesthetics, but also in terms of how to relate to them personally or in the larger social context,” explained Elee Wood, director of the Museum Studies program at IUPUI. “By handling these examples—even though they are printed copies—museum guests can get up close with the ideas that the artifacts represent.”

At the same time, the Site’s ambitious initiative is not without its challenges. 3D printing, although becoming cheaper, is still a relatively pricey technology, with many systems exceeding $1000. Another question is where the printing would actually occur, and how long it would take. Regardless of whether items are 3D printed at home or in public places such as libraries, it’s a time-intensive process.

“For a statue that’s about 8 inches tall,” Johnson noted, “it can take 12 to 16 hours to print.”

Museum staff envision libraries and schools as the initial destinations for this project. Hyde confirmed that the Site is already in discussions with several interested parties, and operational strategies are in the works.

Considering the relatively small museum’s huge undertaking, Hyde and his colleagues want to make it count, and seize the opportunity to uncover best practices for the benefit of other museums too. “We want to set forward a model of success that other museums can emulate,” he said.

The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site expects to have a new website up and running, and at least some artifacts available for 3D printing, by November.

 

 

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