Questioning the Ethics and Usefulness of 3-D Printing

Day Four of Building a Digital Portfolio was all about 3-D modeling, which made me a very happy art historian. I love 3-D models and actually really enjoy making them. As someone who studies centuries-old works of sculpture and architecture, the value of 3-D modeling is a no-brainer for me. I’ve built models in SketchUp, and I’m currently working on a project to digitize (3-dimensionally) all the works of African Sculpture in the permanent collection of The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland. But, until today, I had never seen a 3-D printer in action. I was giddy this afternoon when Sharon Leon and Shiela Brennan took us into the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I was so excited to see where the magic happens for the Center and the Omeka team, and I was even more excited when I saw a MakerBot in the corner printing a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal! I could not wait to get my hands on one of those tiny models.

IMG_26083-D Printed Model of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s The Prince Imperial with his Dog Nero, 1912. Made available by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Printed at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Much to my surprise, my child-like wonder faded the second I picked up one of the 3-D printed objects. As Sheila led us through a discussion of what possible uses we could envision for these models, either in a museum or pedagogical setting, I turned one of the models around in my hands, wondering, “Am I missing something here?” The replicas we held this afternoon were all so impossibly lightweight and almost immaterial that I felt no connection to the original artwork whatsoever. I found the small ridges that result from the printing process to be distracting, and yet another distancing factor from the original.

What’s left over after the modeling and printing process has little more to do with the original artwork than its subject matter and composition. Through the 3-D printing process we lose the scale, texture, materiality, weight, temperature, and smell of the original object, as well as the general sense of a human imprint on that material. Aside from enabling vision-impaired persons to interact with art, what’s the point of 3-D printing copies of artworks?

Until today, I thought the ‘cool factor’ was the main reason someone might want to 3-D print a replica of an artwork. But are 3-D printed objects really cool? The process of making and printing these models is fascinating, but I don’t know if I agree any longer that the end result is cool, too. I mean, how long does anyone really want to keep a miniature plastic replica of Abraham Lincoln’s face? So my next and more pressing question becomes, what happens to all these 3-D printed replicas when people get bored of them? Aren’t we just creating a bunch more plastic junk to throw in a landfill? After some conversation with the Center’s Roberto Sanchez, who was operating the MakerBot, we learned that there are biodegradable plastic filaments for 3-D printers that are not much more expensive than the non-biodegradable ones. But I’m still not entirely convinced how long the objects take to fully degrade and how many 3-D printers are using these more environmentally friendly materials.

Some of the potential uses for 3-D modeling that fellow presenters suggested involved the virtual experimentation with various reconstructions of ancient sculpture, and also the virtual restoration and re-coloring of damaged sculptures. I think these are both terrific reasons to take advantage of 3-D modeling technologies, but I can’t see the reason, in either case, why it would be necessary to actually print a physical model of those digital renderings. Plastic replicas need not, and should not, be the inevitable end result of digital modeling. The computerized model is the part that really allows us to investigate and learn something new about an artwork in question.

Assuming that non-biodegradable 3-D printing materials continue to be used, I really wonder which is a bigger peril for humanity: risking the slightly accelerated degradation of selected artworks in order to allow museum-goers to physically interact with them, or accelerating the destruction of our planet by dumping plastic 3-D models into landfills? I know this is a radical stance, and museum conservators and art historians will probably ban me from the profession if they read this, but I think there are some real ethical questions around the use of 3-D printers that we need to grapple with. I’m not necessarily opposed to playing around with new digital art history projects just because they’re neat and because we can, but 3-D printers create actual physical objects that exist in the world. Art historians and museum professionals need to think much more critically about the purpose of 3-D printed objects, and if there might be a better and more sustainable way to accomplish the goals that 3-D printers try to achieve.

Source: Questioning the Ethics and Usefulness of 3-D Printing