June 4, 2012

When The Getty Center first opened its doors in 1997, a local billionaire remarked that it was “too good for Los Angeles.” Luckily, the J. Paul Getty Museum knows better. Nothing is too good for Los Angeles, and no works of art are too good for the people who admire them.

For thousands of years, powerful people have commissioned artists to venture into museums, churches, temples, and ruins around the world to make copies for their private collections. Today, with 3D scanning, photo-stitching, and printing, that tradition is poised to evolve and spread faithful reproductions of treasured artwork far beyond the walls of elite palaces.

Leading the trend, on June 1, 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its collaboration with MakerBot Industries to scan and share data models of objects in the Met’s collection. Free, open-source, printable scans will be shared freely on Makerbot’s object file-sharing site,

The technological changes happening right now are going to up end traditional notions of a museum’s purpose as well as challenge intellectual property concepts and practices across many industries. This terrain is shifting very, very quickly: Autodesk has already released an iPhone version of their 3D capturing app.

Forward-thinking institutions like the Met have already begun to realize that these new technologies will increase the importance of their objects’ provenance relative to their physicality or exclusivity. Museums will eventually be measured by the quality of the data they publish, and their expert scholarship and curation, as much as by the collections they control. With any luck, The Getty and other leading institutions won’t let themselves be outdone by the Met, and will soon advance their educational missions by publishing high-quality wire frame models of their artifacts too. In the meantime, the scans the Met and MakerBot are doing, along with amateur surveys, will have to suffice.

While some institutions may be caught flat-footed, or react to new technologies and distribution channels the way Hollywood and the music industry have, the fact is that there are likely already enough photos in the public domain of every important object displayed in world-class institutions for photo-stitching software eventually to model the objects with or without museums’ participation. The data has already left the building.

About my survey:

In late May 2012 I spent about six hours at The Getty Center taking over a thousand photos of several sculptures, including my favorites, Harwood’s Bust of a Man and Deare’s Venus Reclining on a Sea Monster. The lighting conditions and access around all sides of the objects were far less than ideal (given my skills, at least), but I did the best I could. Imagine what The Getty could do!

I had originally intended to spend much more time refining the few models I’d made, re-shooting them as needed, and possibly printing one life-size version and having it cast in bronze before publishing my results. But when MakerBot and the Met announced their project, I wanted to participate right away. I hope you will too.

The results shown in this video are of a quick and *very* rough prototype—more of a practice run—and used a low-res mesh with minimal corrections. I will post all my original photos and object files so that anyone can work with them from scratch or start at any intermediate stage to improve, mix, or modify them. All my mesh files will need a lot of work—and help from others—to get better results. For a start, go to here for “Venus Reclining on a Sea Monster,” a beautiful object that I have not yet experimented with, but which looks promisingly printable.

Thousands of years ago, artists carved statues of their rulers outfitted as pagan gods. Renaissance artists depicted historic figures from antiquity in anachronistic, then-fashionable clothing. Artists and their wealthy patrons have inserted their own likenesses in all manner of religious, historic, and political settings since time immemorial. Everything is a jumble and a publicity stunt. Art history is remix history, and the more people that have direct access to these forms, the more wild and fantastic their reinventions will be. Pitch in.

—Cosmo Wenman

Download model files here: