Cultural heritage is a complex and superfluous concept. While some people only find it in huge museum complexes in which you can spend days walking past paintings and statues, others see it in small objects handed down through generations or even in intangible concepts and social conventions. It makes you wonder: does a part of cultural heritage remain its essence as a digital replica, or do you need the original? And do others experiece a painting, statue or artifact the same way as I do?

In an effort to rethink what cultural heritage and museum are and can be, one English design firm called Good, Form & Spectacle has been working on an interesting and innovative project in the past few months called The Small Museum. Its overlapping goal? To find out what a museum should look like if developed from scratch. Not starting with a huge collection that needs to be housed somewhere, or alternatively with a huge repurposed building that needs to be filled with art. As part of that endeavor, they have been working on a smaller project entitled Museum in a Box, which relies on 3D printing to explore the value and meaning of museum objects.

As its developers George Oates, Tom Flynn and Harriet Maxwell , these 3D printed objects can be used to explore what happens when people can touch and experience these cultural treasures and how their nature changes when connected to the internet of things. How do people interact with museum pieces? ‘Museum in a Box is just what it says on the box. The idea is to be able to create a box of objects from museums around the world, and have it sent to your school or your office or to home. You’d get a fun package of replica cultural objects along a theme that interests you,’ they say. ‘We’re thinking literally to organize brown paper packages tied up with string.’

The first prototype 'Museum in a Box'

In the box are ten 3D printed replicas of timeless components from the British Museum’s collection. By enabling visitors to interact with these pieces, the trio hope to find out more about the how people experience holding an object rather than viewing it on screen. They are also interested in the differences between preferences for content or a collection and in how objects interact as part of a greater network. ‘We’re already imagining a series of different sorts of uses for it, and we’d like to get the prototype in front of people like children in school, out of school, older people, visually impaired people, curators, teachers, parents, reminiscence therapists, art history students, hipsters.’ All the data these experiences generate through public responses will hopefully help them to discover how the museum in the 21rst century should bring its collection and its visitors together.

Budai Hesheng and the Colossal Foot.

Of course, all are just miniature replicas of diverse and sometimes huge originals from the British Museum. These were first scanned before being 3D printed at high quality. ‘With regards to photogrammetry and 3D printing, we worked specifically on how miniature reproductions could be used as tokens or even keys to unlock more information about an historic artefact or historical theme.’ They explain. They have estimated that the full set cost at least £350 to 3D print (or about $520). The full list of chosen objects includes:

  • Budai Hesheng
  • Buddhist goddess, Tara
  • Colossal foot
  • Crouching lion
  • Figure of Xochipilli
  • Goddess of Hathor
  • Hoa Hakananai’a
  • House post
  • Nandi bull
  • Rosetta Stone

Goddess of Hathor. 

While all famous parts components of the British Museum’s collection, the last is perhaps the most famous. Featuring a royal proclamation in three languages, this slab of stone was key in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. And thanks to 3D printing technology, amateur Egyptologists, as well as school children and other visitors, will be able to touch and experience this crucial piece of cultural heritage for themselves.

The Rosetta Stone: 3D printed and original. 

As the trio of cultural scientists explained, they have just taken this set of 3D printed pieces of heritage on a temporary ‘test exhibition’ at Somerset House in the UK. Throughout the two weeks, visitors were able to interact with these 3D printed miniatures, as well as with the other Small Museum project. ‘We’ve thoroughly enjoyed prototyping how a very small museum might operate in public. We worked with our doors open, inviting anyone to come in and talk with us, and to experience the work, which included a new exhibition each day. We were also joined by some invited guests including technologists, artists and academics who came to visit and help form and implement our ideas,’ they tell us.

As this experience generated lots of conversation, content and data, the team is still thinking about how to capture this experience and use it for the development of the modern museum. But one thing is certain: 3D printing and cultural heritage is an excellent combination.