One of the sacred ceremonial objects repatriated from Manchester Museum to indigenous communities in Australia last November. Image: AIATSIS

Can 3D printing drive repatriation efforts in museums?

Tilda Coleman, 14.01.2020
A research project is exploring the role new technologies can play in the return of objects
Researchers in Brighton are exploring how 3D printing technologies can help museums in repatriation efforts. 

Myrsini Samaroudi and Karina Rodriguez Echavarria from the University of Brighton are investigating how printing 3D replicas can enable people to access other cultures without institutions having to hold on to contested artefacts. 

Their research also looks at how 3D printing can enhance the visitor experience, examining how audience groups such as children and visually impaired people could benefit from artefacts being copied.

By investigating how audiences respond to replicas, they aim to demonstrate that originality is not always what matters most to museum visitors.  

Creating physical replicas could unlock great potential in museum collections, say Samaroudi and Echavarria. “By interacting with these replicas, people are able to experience the artefacts' ‘physicality’ and observe their details closely. 

“Furthermore, the digital artefact can be digitally or physically customised to match visitors’ requirements or needs. For example, we can print an ancient pot in a small size and from safe materials for children to play.”

A pragmatic scenario would include museums experimenting with technologies, sharing knowledge and ultimately exploring the potential to return physical artefacts, the researchers say. 

They believe that museums must evolve in a changing world: “Museums are not static organisations. They are ever evolving and driven by society changes, funding conditions and other local and global challenges.”

“Our connected and global society recognises that it is time for the museum to promote new values and play a different role… it isn’t about erasing our past, but rather reconciling with it while promoting universal values.”  

Repatriation is sensitive process, however, and there is a feeling among museum professionals that it would not be appropriate to use 3D printing in many scenarios. 

Stephen Welsh, the curator behind the ongoing project at Manchester Museum to repatriate 43 sacred and ceremonial objects to First Nation communities in Australia, says that his museum would not have considered 3D printing the artefacts if the option had been available. He says that as the repatriation of the objects was unconditional, “3D printing was not appropriate or requested”. 

In Welsh’s view, the museum sector needs to move to a more “people-centered” approach to repatriation, “and depend less on 3D printing to compensate for a presumed loss”. 

Welsh adds, however, that each museum is unique and each repatriation case different. 

A spokesperson for the V&A, another institution that has been involved in the debate about repatriation, says that while the museum has undertaken a variety of 3D imaging and scanning projects to support preservation and education initiatives, “we have not previously displayed a facsimile of an object that has been restituted or sent out on long term loan”. 

The spokesperson adds, however, that the museum “welcomes all ideas for encouraging transparency and widest possible access”.

Samaroudi and Echavarria emphasise that to move forward, a collaborative and inclusive approach is required: “Different views and voices need to be incorporated into the dialogue between the involved communities.” 

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