3D scan & print our world’s heritage

One of my dreams that all historic artifacts become available on the internet for all the see. Museums all over the world are filled with these amazing and beautiful artifacts ranging from sculptures of Michelangelo to Maya pottery. And it does not stop at museums. There are churches and other religious temples all over the world with interesting artifacts on display. And you can find sculptures and fantastic buildings all over the world. Italy comes to mind with cities like Rome, Pompeii and Venice. Same could be said of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Cairo’s pyramids. The list is endless.

Just imagine when all these artifacts are 3D scanned and their digital replicas become available to all. The scanned artifacts can be used to create virtual museums. Field experts and enthusiasts can create virtual collections. Academics can use them for research without having access to the physical object. Students can study artifacts in detail without having to travel or stare at photographs. That can significantly change the field of archaeology. 
Digitalization of our world’s heritage will help in preservation, conservation and restoration of these ancient artifacts before they are lost or broken beyond repair.

But the digitalization of world’s heritage will also enable for average people to bring the world’s heritage into their homes. It would be as easy as ordering a 3D printed copy. It helps spread history beyond museums and historic places. I am sure experts will argue that replicas are not the same and may even be appalled by the idea that a scaled version of famous artifacts like Michelangelo’s sculptures are produced. But honestly stuffing them into overcrowded museums 1000 miles away is not making them very accessible either.

Besides the ethical part of reproducing artifacts there are other stumbling blocks as well. For instance the right to reproduce these artifacts comes to mind. Many governments and most museums do not allow any form of replication of their collections. For museums photographs and replicas are an important revenue source.
To be honest I think that no government or museum can own the exclusive right to replicate an artifact when it is important part of history. They can limit access for conservation purposes but they have no right to bar access to the public for any other reason. The world’s heritage is owned by the world’s population.

There are technical challenges as well. 3D scanning is not good enough yet to capture complex geometric shapes very well. It works great for sculptures but more complex shapes are next to impossible to 3D scan properly and accurately. CT-scans are a better option. It can capture complex geometries though it does not capture the color and texture of an item. It is a geometry only option. After scanning the resulting digital output needs significant manual work to turn it into a useful geometry for further processing and making it available online. To capture the texture of an artifact 3D photography can help. If you could somehow combine CT-scans and 3D photographs we may have a winner.
Some work in this area is undertaken by Stanford University in the form the Large Statue Scanner. They used the scanner to make an accurate 3D scan of Michelangelo’s David sculpture in Florence, Italy. Interesting fact is that while scanning they found out that sculpture was actually a few inches larger than recorded.

The world’s heritage of art, artifacts and architecture are owned by the world and we are now (almost) technically able of making it available for the world to see and own. Like the book scanning project of Google we should embark on an artifact scanning project as well. Just imagine when viewing the Wikipedia page on Michelangelo’s David and from there you can view the sculpture in all its glory and details. And when you like you can get a small replica for yourself as well. I think we owe it to ourselves that we can do that.