Art & Sculpture

Why 3D print copies of art and sculpture? Interview with Scan the World

Scan the World is a project founded by Jonathan Beck in 2014. In his own words, Jonathan explains it as “a community built initiative archiving objects of cultural significance from across the globe.” All objects are created using scan data, and are made 3D printable by Jonathan and his team of designers.

I was invited to join Jonathan on a 3D scanning trip to the Mougins Museum of Classical Art in the South of France and had the opportunity to hear more about the project first hand.

In this interview, Jonathan answers the questions I had surrounding the value of 3D printed replicas, and sheds light on the digital future of the world’s museums.

Talking with Jonathan overlooking the Côte d'Azur in France.
Talking with Jonathan Beck overlooking the Côte d’Azur.

A hands on approach to art and culture

To start, Jonathan explains the original concept behind Scan the World, which has its roots in the process of photogrammetry. He explains,

At university I was studying the concept of photography, or digital photography, and I found that through photographing a series of overlapping pictures you can make a 3D scan.

After using this method to make his own artwork, Jonathan approached MyMiniFactory, who was looking to expand its 3D model database. Noticing a gap in the archive for objects of cultural heritage, Jonathan suggested the site could use some sculptures. He explains,

There was the concept of how can we preserve culture, or share culture in this new tangible way. I thought, because sculptures are probably the most accessible thing, and people like to go to museums, and people do like to study objects there, that it would be the most easy means of contributing to the archive.

Photography 2.0 and the gateway to 3D printing 

Jonathan goes on to explain how he conceptualized the idea as “Photography 2.0”, making the 3D models more like 3D photos. He says,

…the rise of digital photography, and sticking to just a 2D plane seems like the first step. To be able to compile a group of multiple images together, and process them in the same way as you process a single image in Photoshop then 2D print it, it’s the same idea.

With the development of Smartphones, most people today do have their own, or at least access to, a camera for taking photos. By harnessing this accessibility, Scan the World “serves as a gateway into learning about 3D printing”.

Making 3D models for the archive doesn’t require any special design skills, and photos can be stitched together using free open-software. Jonathan adds,

There’s nothing nicer than having those photographs, and then a few hours later having a 3D printed model in your hand of the thing you took the pictures of. It’s a very rewarding means of engaging with this new industry, a new tool I suppose.

50 worldwide museums, 5,500 models and counting

As of 2017, Scan the World includes 3D models from around 50 of the world’s museums. The collection in total is around 5,500, with at least another 1,000 in processing as new artworks are added every day. To stretch the collection even further, Jonathan started approaching private collectors whose works are typically less accessible to the public.

3D models of scanned objects from Christian Levett's collection of antiquities. Image via Scan_The_World on Twitter
3D models of scanned objects from Christian Levett’s collection of antiquities. Image via Scan_The_World on Twitter

3D scanning the pieces on display at the Mougins Museum of Classical Art in France is one part of an ongoing commission to digitize the collection of antiquities enthusiast and hedge-fund manager Christian Levett, interviewed for 3D Printing Industry in April 2017. With a style for displaying classical pieces alongside contemporary, Jonathan recognized Levett’s understanding of how to “play” with artworks, finding in him too progressive thoughts towards the digital.

The digital museum 

By opening up his collection with the help of Scan the World, Christian’s commission falls in line with some of the world’s larger institutions. These include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that has released photos of its entire online collection for free.

Jonathan says,

This idea within museums and collections becoming a lot more open and accessible is just coming naturally as a response to the digital era, social networks and instant sharing. The art object has to carry on with that.

He goes on to speak to the fear of some museums that a free online collection will stop people from actually visiting the place in real life, saying

We’ve found the reverse. In scanning a lot of these works people will take pride in having one of the musuem’s objects in their house, and printing it and reading about it. The result is if they ever visit London, or if they visit Mougins or something, they will go to that museum because they will have that sculpture in mind.

Such positive results have be recorded in Scan the World events, such as scan-a-thons at London’s V&A museum. Jonathan adds,

…getting people around, teaching them how the technology works, people get more engaged with the sculpture in the means that it was meant to be. In “the performance” of scanning you do engage with the space around the sculpture, and look at it in more detail.

What’s next for Scan the World?

The latest project from Jonathan is to 3D print all 5,500 models on Scan the World and put them on display in a single exhibition. To keep up to date with progress, follow Scan the World on Twitter. All of the models 3D scanned at the museum in Mougins and more are available to download for free from MyMiniFactory.

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Featured image shows a stack of 3D printed sculptures available on Scan the World. Photo by Jonathan Beck