Building what isn’t there – 3D printing and museums

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful folk from the Grant Museum of Zoology, at UCL. We were discussing how the Grant Museum might be able to contribute to one or two of the sessions in the ‘Digital Futures‘ program that I’m running. The conversation quickly turned to the elephant in the room… well… less “elephant” and more “quagga”.

For those of you who aren’t sure what a quagga is, much like me up to a few days ago, here’s a quick description. Imagine that a zebra mated with a horse, and the animal created was about four-and-a-bit feet high, and about eight feet long. There you go, that’s a quagga. Alternatively, you could just look at the picture below.

A photograph of a quagga, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library
A photograph of a quagga, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Sadly, this majestic creature is now extinct; hunted for its meat and skin, it was gone by the late 1880s. It’s a terrible shame, for sure, but why am I talking about an animal that hasn’t existed for well over a century? Well, as it turns out, the Grant Museum has an almost complete skeleton on display. The reason that I’ve italicised ‘almost’ is quite important here, because sadly the example that they have is missing its back left leg and top right shoulder. Well… at least it was missing those bones.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, the hard workers at the Grant Museum have managed to re-create those missing appendages to build a fully complete quagga skeleton. Now I know what you’re saying, “recreating bones is nothing new, museums have been doing it for decades!”. And you’re right, I can’t refute that point. The Grant have done it a little differently, though, because they’ve printed the bones. Now whilst this might not sound overly impressive at first, let me explain why this could revolutionise the way that museums handle, display and conserve their collections.

A Flickr album, by UCL News, of the quagga project

Historically, missing bones were recreated by plaster. Some people know this, others aren’t aware. But ‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus at the Natural History Museum, for example, isn’t “real” at all. I’ve mentioned the “realness” of Dippy once before, here. But how real or unreal a skeleton is isn’t really the point of this post, the point is to highlight how museums can recreate bones, not the merits of recreating them. At the Grant, they used a massive CT scanner (as you can see from the images in that album) to scan the right leg and left shoulder of the quagga. They then reversed the data generated by the scanner, using computer software, to model the opposite bones and then print them. These printed bones were then added to the quagga to complete the skeleton.

There’s a lot of stuff that I like about this project. Firstly, I like that they didn’t change the colour of the printed bones to match the original skeleton. I appreciate it when museums are transparent about what they do, and that the Grant didn’t try to hide the fact that this particular quagga isn’t naturally ‘complete’. I also like that the project adds a bit of drama to the whole object, particularly because these new “bones” act as an extension of that quagga’s story. I also like that the Grant are using digital tech in some incredibly imaginative ways. But, mostly, I like the possibilities that projects like this bring for both the museum, and the museum audience.

By using 3D modelling and printing, museums could achieve some really amazing things. For instance, they could recreate and exhibit objects that are too damaged, or delicate, for public display. They could make replicas of their most popular objects for handling sessions, or to go out on loan to other museums for more people to enjoy. They could even make the data openly accessible to the general public, so that they could print their own versions at home. Taking a slightly more commercial stance, museums could mass produce some objects to be sold, changing their dimensions to fit any kind of novelty gift (maybe this example is better done tastefully, but it’s still a way for museums to generate revenue and ensure that they stay open in the face of cuts).

But I think that the most exciting use for this sort of tech is best exemplified by the quagga. Through 3D printing, the Grant has added a new dimension to an old object. That new dimension is material, because they’ve literally added a number of missing bones. But the new dimension is also immaterial, in the story associated with the quagga itself. Now, when people come to visit the Grant, they’ll see the quagga with one black leg and one black shoulder, and they’ll wonder why that is. They’ll read or ask about the printing project, and they’ll engage further with both the museum and the skeleton. It acts as another way to interpret the object, and another way to enhance the story of the quagga itself.

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