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3D Scanning, Hacking, and Printing in Art Museums, for the Masses

Don Undeen, Senior Manager of MediaLab, Digital Department

Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

«3D Printing. You've heard the term everywhere lately, from Popular Science magazine to tech blogs, to President Obama's State of the Union address. Advocates of this technology claim that 3D printers will revolutionize manufacturing, health care, education, design, space exploration, time travel, and countless other fields. While they may not help us travel back in time, 3D printers sure are neat, and new applications of these tools are being developed every day.»

At the Met, we've been exploring ways that 3D technologies can be used by everyday visitors to enhance their museum experience.

Knowing that not everyone has a 3D printer or amazing tech skills, my team and I are focusing on tools and activities that are accessible to a wide range of people. In upcoming articles, I'll go into each area in detail, but I wanted to start by providing an overview of the software, hardware, and best practices involved in entering the wonderful world of 3D. This is just a jumping-off point. I'm really interested in what new ideas you have, so please share them!

The first step in your journey is to get a digital model to play with. Some common digital 3D file formats are STL and OBJ; these can be imported into most 3D manipulation programs. One of the easiest ways to get started is to download premade models from popular sharing sites like thingiverse.com. The Met already has more than thirty models available on our thingiverse page at http://thingiverse.com/met.

If you're visiting the Museum, it's not hard to make your own models using nothing but a digital camera and free program called 123D Catch. At the Met we allow photography in most of our galleries ("no photography" areas are clearly marked); as long as you follow the rules, this isn't a problem. Simply take pictures of the object from all sides, load it into 123D Catch, wait a few minutes, and via the magic of photogrammetry, your favorite museum art object is rendered in full 3D glory! To be fair, the process doesn't always run perfectly. In future articles, I'll demonstrate techniques for getting the best results from 123D Catch.

123D Catch turns pictures into 3D models!

Taking home a "copy" of a sculpture at the Met is exciting, but it might be even more fun to use that work as an inspiration for your own creations. Fortunately, new apps are being created and updated all the time to make that work easier for beginners. Free tools like MeshMixer let you create quick mashups of different models, for wild juxtapositions and clever contrasts. Take Leda and the Swan and Marsyas and create "Leda and the Marsyas," like Jonathan Monaghan did at the Met 3D Hackathon. Once you master the mashups you can get more technical, creating usable models like the "Boddhisattva of Infinite Pez Dispension," by Tony Buser. All of these apps have a bit of a learning curve, but in future articles I'll walk you through the basics to get started. In the meantime take a look at some MeshMixer tutorials at http://www.youtube.com/user/meshmixer.

Art Mashup made with MeshMixer

And now to the printing, where you bring your object from the digital world into the physical (sort of like Tron in reverse!). The cost of 3D printers is coming down; self-assembly kits can be found for as little as $200 (http://makibox.com). If building complex machinery from hundreds of parts is your ideal way to spend a weekend, then this is the fun and inexpensive way to go. Fully assembled printers like the Replicator 2 from MakerBot or the Cube printer from 3D Systems get closer to hassle-free operation, but if you decide to take home a printer of your very own, be prepared to spend time fussing with calibration, adjusting screws, and still having some failed prints before you get it right. To some people, all that tweaking and hacking is part of the fun. If you'd rather just get a printed model into your hands with the least amount of hassle, there are online services that will do this for you, in a variety of materials, at better quality than you're likely to get at home. Shapeways is a popular one, but Materialise and Sculpteo are also worth checking out.

I hope I've piqued your interest in 3D scanning, modeling, and printing. In the coming weeks, I'll get into some specifics and share examples of work by our own 3D volunteers. In the meantime, if you've got questions, comments, ideas, or creations of your own, please share them below!

Department(s): Digital


  • Wenzhi says:

    Hi Mr. Undeen,
    I'm so excited to read this blog. It's awesome. I am an international graduate student in a school of Library and information science. I am working in my school's 3D lab as a part-time job. I am new in this field and feel very interested in this field. It is glad and excited to see your 3D works in this museum. Do you have a open exhibition hall in the museum to show the 3D works? I am going to New York tomorrow and do hope I can learn more about it in the Metropolitan of Art. Thanks!!

    Best regards,

    Posted: October 16, 2013, 1:24 p.m.

  • don undeen says:

    Hi Wenzhi,
    Thanks for the kind words!
    We've got a few 3-D printed works in our collection, most notably "Fractal.MGX" which is a 3D printed, algorithmically generated table:

    The works you see in the article above, however, are available online, on sites like http://thingiverse.com, where anyone can download and print them.

    If you come by the Met, bring your camera and try taking some photos of your own for 123D Catch. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting an article that describes how to get the best results from free photogrammetry software. Let me know how it turns out!


    Posted: October 20, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

  • barbara hammer says:

    Hello Don Undeen,

    Is it possible to meet with you and show you an installation about oil spills that involves the Kinect camera, 5 screens, audience interactivity, and 5-1 surround sound? It was developed for me at Banff and although I have all the plans, detailed accounts from the engineers on showing it, Sea Change has never been installed with the exception of a few hour trial at Banff during my artist residency.

    On the website you can see a clip of the four channels, the kinect camera use on the 5th screen, and interviews with participant viewers who got to experience the piece during its brief moment.

    If you send me your email I can send you the password for the complete 6 minute 4 channel video.

    Barbara Hammer

    Posted: November 13, 2013, 9:46 p.m.

  • Dr Chantelle Niblock says:

    Dear Don Undeen,

    Its really exciting to see these technologies being used in such an accessible fashion.
    I'm currently working on a research project, which involves 3D digitising a rather large (but fragile) artefact in a museum in NYC.
    I would really appreciate your advice - how did you create the 3D models? Can you recommend a 3D digitisation specialists for museum artefacts?

    Kind Regards,


    Posted: March 4, 2014, 5:54 p.m.

  • don undeen says:

    Hi Dr Chantelle, Barbara,

    A good way to reach me outside this comments section is via my twitter handle, @donundeen .

    While the MediaLab doesn't play a role in the acquisition of new media art, we are very interested in creating a fertile ground for experimentation and sharing of information that pushes both art, and audience interactivity, in new directions.

    Looking forward to hearing from you!


    Posted: March 5, 2014, 10:19 a.m.

  • Mallory says:

    Hi Mr. Undeen,

    My classmate and I are working on a project for our Museum Education class about the use of 3D printing in museums, and we came across your blog post. Would you be able to answer a few questions? Specifically, we were wondering about the public response to the programs you mention here. Do you find that visitors to the Met are eager to work with these new technologies? Have you had any problems with them? Is it mostly young people who do this, or is it across demographics?

    Thank you for your input!


    Posted: March 18, 2014, 1:19 p.m.

  • don undeen says:

    Hi Mallory,
    The MediaLab helps run a Meetup group, the NYC Museum MediaLab Meetup:
    which hosts a variety of 3D scanning, modeling and printing activities.

    In cooperation with our Education Department, we've also hosted 3d activities for teens, adults, and families.

    I can definitely say that we've seen enthusiasm for this technology from all age groups.

    As far as problems go, some stumbling blocks I've seen people of all age groups come across are:
    - Printing is slower than they'd like. It's not immediate gratification like most digital technologies. Expectations need to be adjusted
    - Many 3D scanning, modeling, and printing tools, even the "user-friendly" ones, are not as intuitive or polished as many software users have grown to expect. There's still some time involved in adapting to a new paradigm, and people that aren't used to really digging into a new idea, might get frustrated when their first print doesn't come out great. I recommend that you stick with it and recognize that all new tools take time to master.
    - There's a small number of people out there who really don't like the idea of mashing up classic art works. They might feel it's diminishing to the original artwork. That's not a position I share, but it's something to be sensitive to, particularly when dealing with artworks from active cultures.

    hope that helps! hit me up on twitter, @donundeen, if you have more questions.


    Posted: March 18, 2014, 4:06 p.m.

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About the Author

Don Undeen is the senior manager of MediaLab in the Digital Department.

About this Blog

The Digital Department leads the creation, production, presentation, and dissemination of multimedia content to support the viewing and understanding of the Met's collection and exhibitions, both within the galleries and online. This blog discusses a few of the activities of the department, and invites your questions and comments about the Museum's digital initiatives.