I am considering the question we asked ourselves today: just because we can 3D print art objects, should we? And for what purpose? I think these questions are just right.
So I Googled “purposes of 3D printing in art history” and got a number of reasonable hits: a quick-to-read entry on Skulpturhall and the MET’s Underground (as well as related articles) were among the first hits. Mostly pedagogical applications, as I would have guessed. Anything else?
Here’s an interesting one: “3D Scanning & Printing Brought in to Solve Centuries-Old Art History Mystery” – an attribution mystery case (possibly) solved by 3D printing technology. Very compelling (although I wonder if the marketing angle was too attractive to turn away from).
While I can’t argue with the latter application (and perhaps many more research applications out there), I have a thought on the former. I really like the idea of visualizing places…maybe. I loved peeking around building corners and stairwells in Digital Pompeii, but I wonder what I lost by having those images enter my mind. They are more accurate, of course, but the replacement of the imaginings that I have been developing since I took my first classics course as an undergraduate has come at a cost: I can’t unsee them, and I can’t unthink them. I like the idea of peeking, but when I do I am sorry for it.
So what will 3D printing do for the imagination of a child visiting a gallery and who is given a chance to touch a very cool 3D model, but also a very fake one? Will they remember the rougher edges, the light weight, the colour? Will they mistake that for the art? And will it be better than what they can imagine without interference? I don’t think so. Kids (and their parents) have wonderful imaginations; I’d hate to insert ideas into their heads and I don’t think we have to. That won’t inspire a future art historian.
I have a friend who will not allow her children to watch movies for which there is an equivalent book (I’m not as hard core, I make mine read the book first). According to her, whatever her kids imagine the character to look like, sound like, walk like (and even smell like, since we also talked about senses) is infinitely better than even the most slick film. It might not be as accurate but it will be better in a small but important way. I like visualizing, and modeling, and imagination. I don’t want to have to choose.