Week 8 – 3D printing: the future of public history?

Computers have always been useful with analysing and sorting text, but it is now being challenged to do the same with images and even physical objects. With the rise of 3D printing, whereby a computer scans an object and recreates a copy of it in minute detail, has also come the demand for a greater look into the material culture of the past. Those in the public history field have especially become involved, for 3D printing’s many benefits. Recreating priceless objects for the public to physically interact with could spell the end of the era of ‘Do Not Touch’, and empower audiences to physically engage with the past they are looking at. For the first time, material culture can be taught with the objects (or at least, copies of the objects) themselves, brought to life though the power of technology. Artist Oliver Laric has taken this one step further, creating 3D scans of objects in the Usher Gallery, and made them available online for free under the Creative Commons Licence.

Henry VIII’s crown was seen as a symbol of his wealth and power as King, and then as a symbol of religious authority, and thus melted down at the Tower of London in 1649, after the abolition of the monarchy. When the Crown was recreated in the mid 2000’s, it was designed based on detailed inventories that detailed the construction, as well as the size and position of the 344 rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and pearls that decorated it. The new crown, as spectacular and detailed as it is, is still a replica. Because of the nature of its past, we will never be able to experience its true glory and regality, but this method of interpreting and using historical sources to recreate a piece of material history using technology is one that has proven extremely popular over the last decade. Furthermore, the Historic Royal Palaces have now made a 3D model of the crown available to download, and created a plastic version to use in public exhibitions at Hampton Court Palace.

Tim Powell, Digital Producer for the Historic Royal Palaces said “It’s deeply exciting to be able to use 3D printing technology to put this piece of history into people’s hands – and allow them to imagine what it must have felt like to wear something so spectacular and meaningful.” However, just printing a plastic copy of a recreation of something that was spectacular and meaningful raises some issues that perhaps if audiences are truly going to gain from the learning experience, the object should be improved.

Given an unlimited budget and some technological developments in 3D printing, it would be much more realistic to create a crown that more accurately represented the original, by firstly making it out of metal, and secondly make it in the same colours. The sheer amount of detail on the original crown is lost in the bland white plastic model, and therefore teaching about its glory is much more difficult. One of the aims by the Hampton Court Palace was for the public to experience what it was like to wear the crown, and using the plastic copy currently available would not achieve this goal. The original crown, with its gold and vast amount of jewels, would have been heavy – to create a cheaper copy out of a form of metal will put this experience across much more realistically, and still not be as expensive as actually using gold and jewels.

Another use of this 3D model would be to create cheaper smaller models, available for sale. Replicas of art have been created for centuries, and used to make money. Using an actual 3D model of Henry VIII’s crown is a close-to authentic way of creating a piece of the past that visitors can touch and has the added bonus of bringing some profit to the palace, that can be put back into more educational recreations of objects.

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