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An Idea for New Income and New Engagement: give your collections to as many people as possible

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Got your attention with that headline, didn’t I? Calm down, I’m not talking about deaccessioning. I’m talking replication and teleportation of collections objects.

Everyone has their own fav future tech. Phil’s is jetpacks:

Mine is 3-D printers (which are the functional equivalent of teleportation devices.) Both actually already exist. Question is: when (if ever) will they become practical, affordable and ubiquitous? And then, how can museums exploit the heck out of them?

I think my favorite is going to beat Phil’s to the punch. Personal jetpacks still cost about $100,000. And they can kill you. 3-D printers are rapidly becoming affordable and versatile. Originally they mostly “printed” (read, extruded) their copies from plastic. Recently someone created a 3-D printer that creates objects from titanium! Which is much more practical than plastic if you are making, for example, machine tools.

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Of course, these printers will really take off when some engineer rigs them to print in food. Think about what you could recreate in marzipan, in stunning detail! Awesome. After all, Microplane graters started as woodworking tools, but their market exploded after they were discovered by home cooks. (Somewhat to the chagrin of the company’s founder, who thinks grating cheese is a pretty wuss use for a “serious” tool.)

And 3-D printers really are starting to be affordable—in the range of other ubiquitous electronic devices such as laptops or microwave ovens. The NYT recently ran a review of 3-D printers ranging from $700 to $3,000. Mostly these are still hobbyist kits (much assembly required) but I bet they make the leap to off-the-shelf printing ready real soon.

Museums are already starting to make specialized use of 3-D printers. For example, conservators at the Singer Laren Museum in Holland recently restored a damaged Rodin by CT scanning the original cast and comparing it to a full-scale 3-D printout of the damaged statue.

But I think the potential for these gadgets goes far, far beyond making exhibit models and guiding conservation. Here’s my idea o’ the week, which I freely give to you: sell 3-D printers in your museum store (as cheap as you can). Sell kits, for now, and hold workshops to help people assemble them. Then scan some of your most interesting objects and specimens, and post specs on your website once a month so people can fabricate the model of something from your collections. Or establish a benefit at that gives members access to the museum’s digital collections templates. Invite visitors to vote on which favorite object to digitize next! The possibilities are endless.

Let me know if you try this out. I promise I won’t come after you for royalties. And post to comments, below, to share whether, and how, your museum is experimenting with this new technology.

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