July 14, 2015 | By Alec

The original Benton maquette.

While you rarely think about it when visiting a museum, many of those exhibited pieces are very delicate and need to be handled with extreme care. But what do you do when you have to take these fragile works of art out to multiple venues, or even a national tour? While you might be successful through extreme fussing about, the curators from a museum in Salem, MA, chose a 3D printing solution. For a national tour of an exhibition on Thomas Hart Benton, the Peabody Essex Museum created a 3D printed replica of a particularly fragile clay maquette.

For the uninitiated, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA is among the most important art museum in the United States. It was founded in 1992 when the Essex Institute merged their collection with that of the Peabody Museum of Salem. Their total collection – consisting of approximately 1,2 million pieces – incorporates very important works of from a number of fields, including American, Asian, Oceanic, African and maritime art.

Last month, a new exhibition called “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” opened to the public, focusing on the amazing works Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). An artist with strong links to the early movie industry, he developed a cinematic style of painting that combined cinematic production techniques with European artistic traditions. Through paintings, murals, illustrated books and drawings, he made major impact on twentieth century America. The exhibition is open to the public until 7 September, when it will head off on a national tour. And that second stage is exactly where 3D printing comes in.

As Amelia Kantrovitz of the PEM museum explains to 3ders.org, Benton’s painting process was a painstaking one. ‘He created scores of preliminary sketches, detailed drawings and clay models (or “maquettes”) to depict light, color and perspective in each painting. One of these maquettes is in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, but unfortunately it was too fragile to travel with this exhibition,’ she explains.

While this usually means that it has to be left behind, PEM’s Director of Integrated Media Jim Olson came up with the unusual idea to create a 3D printed replica of the maquette. 'My first thought on hearing the disappointing news that the maquette could not travel was, “Well, why don’t we just 3-D print a model of it.” While once the technical wizardry of sci-fi movies, 3-D digital printing is now ubiquitous with wide scale applications in everything from prosthetic design to airplane and car parts. In this case, my main concerns were the fragility and complexity of the maquette,’ Olson explains.

Closely working with James DeYoung, senior conservator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and industrial designer Andrew Camardella, they made a very detailed scan of the maquette in Milwaukee. This process took a full day, and relied on projecting a grid over the maquette and capturing it from all angles and perspectives with a digital camera. Andrew Camardella subsequently spent 35 hours processing these scans into a 3D printable digital model that did justice to the original piece.

After printing.

This model was then 3D printed 100% to scale using SLS 3D printing technology. The monochrome white material often called sandstone was used during printing, as its somewhat organic texture closely resembled the clay original. After 3D printing, the model was sealed and strengthed with a a cyanoacrylate solution. However, the impressive model was consciously left white, though the original was colored. This was done because exhibiting replicas isn’t something a museum should do lightly. ‘The curatorial and interpretive teams decided that the maquette would give visitors a clear understanding of Benton’s working methods. The maquette is labeled as a reproduction and we purposefully printed it in monochrome rather than color,’ Olson explains.

The finished model in the workshop.

However, this decision also has its benefits for the visitors. Unlike the original object, visitors are actively encouraged to touch and experience the maquette for themselves, enabling them get a better sense of the artist’s own process. The piece is also installed in a recreation of Benton’s workshop – complete with paints, brushes and an inspiration board – to add to the experience. Benton once stated “I feel my paintings in my hands”, so this 3D printed maquette will enable visitors to recreate that experience for themselves. If you’d like to get in touch with Benton’s artistic process, the exhibition can be visited in the Peabody Essex Museum until 7 September and elsewhere in the months that follow. 



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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