In planning for the upcoming special exhibition Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings, curator Susanne Ebbinghaus and exhibition designer Justin Lee spent time developing two- and three-dimensional plans for the gallery spaces. One step involved constructing a model with miniature mock-ups of some of the art and casework. But with much of this exhibition made up of 3D objects, a challenge loomed: how to best create the miniature cases for the gallery model?
Typically, miniature cases are assembled by hand with paper, Styrofoam, or wood—a laborious process. This time, however, a more efficient technique was proposed: creating them with precisely scaled-down measurements using the new desktop stereolithography (SLA) printer in the Department of Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology (DIET).
Technology fellow Gavriella Levy Haskell, who took the lead on the project, first had to get to know the printer itself. “I hadn’t had any experience with 3D printers, so I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Levy Haskell. “But as I started doing research on how to operate it, I got pretty excited. It’s not very hard to use and it works really well.”
The Printing Process
Equipped with computer files of scaled-down versions of the cases that Lee had supplied, Levy Haskell prepared the forms for printing using a 3D modeling program. Due to the miniature cases’ small size (just a few inches tall, at most), she was able to print them in batches.
The printer uses a chemical process to create objects atop unique support scaffolding. A laser shines through the clear bottom of a tank filled with photosensitive liquid resin to solidify the resin where the object will be. Then the platform supporting the tank is raised a few millimeters, and the process is repeated for each layer of the object. It’s a slow process—Levy Haskell’s largest batch took 11 hours to print—but it results in very sturdy products.
Upon completion of printing, the objects harden with exposure to UV light and are removed from the scaffolding and cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. Then, it takes a day or two for the pieces to fully dry before finishing touches can be made.
Levy Haskell’s final result—33 printed miniature cases made over just a handful of days (even with some trial and error)—made her hard work worthwhile. Susanne Ebbinghaus especially appreciated it.
“These look so realistic and offer more flexibility” than previous versions of miniature cases, said Ebbinghaus, head of the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art and the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art. “I like that I can move them around to try out different scenarios in the galleries. They are great tools for mapping out the space and for understanding how objects relate to one another and how they would affect the flow of the exhibition.”
Levy Haskell also was pleased. A previous 3D printing project had produced a new case for a remote control in the Lightbox Gallery, an application that enhances the visitor experience. But seeing the printer successfully solve curatorial dilemmas underlined the diverse possibilities for its use, she said. “It’s not necessarily being cutting-edge for the sake of being cutting-edge; it’s using technology in ways that are purposeful and that help every aspect of the museums,” Levy Haskell said.
Other potential applications could include creating replicas of select works in the collections, said Jeff Steward, director of DIET. This would be especially valuable for the vision-impaired, as well as other visitors who want a tactile experience: “People can handle replicas to get a feel for the surface and dimensions of an object,” Steward said.
As the Animal-Shaped Vessels exhibition continues to develop, the 3D-printed miniature cases will serve as reference points and may also be used to plan other exhibitions. In the meantime, Levy Haskell recently went one step further in visualizing the still-developing show: she photographed the miniature cases inside the model galleries with a 360-degree camera. The resulting images have helped provide an even better sense of what it would be like to encounter the exhibition—more than a year before the first object is officially installed.