5. 3D models – opportunities and limitations

By themselves, or with the aid of other information carriers, printed 3D models can help increase the accessibility and understanding of cultural heritage objects.

As a 3D model can never convey an object’s materiality, they often need to be supplemented with material samples.  A printed 3D model can also be used as a template for copies made from authentic materials.


Advantages of 3D models

  • 3D models can provide tactile and multi-sensory experiences in the form of volume in an object, without the original being subjected to physical handling.
  • Once an object has been digitised in 3D, it can easily be scaled up or down. A 3D model thus allows you to scale up and reinforce small details which are hard to make out in the original object, or scale down large objects to a size that allows them to be handled.
  • Identical models can be mass produced quickly and easily.
  • 3D models can be used to test out different proposed reconstructions of missing pieces and colours.
  • 3D models can be used as prototypes for objects which are then manufactured from other materials, e.g. jewellery being cast in silver after finding the appropriate size through 3D model testing.
  • Through CT scanning, 3D models can be made of objects which are hidden and inaccessible, for example amulets wrapped in a mummy or the inner supports of a sculpture.


Drawbacks of 3D models

  • 3D models are representations, not copies of the originals.
  • Even if a 3D-printed model creates an exact replica of the outer shape of the original, other information cannot be replicated (such as the tactile sensation and physical properties of the original materials), which can be crucial for understanding the object, its use, and its context.
  • Many of the materials used for 3D printing wear quickly during daily handling of objects in educational activities and exhibitions.
  • 3D models often come across as “plastic” and artificial, unable to reproduce sharp, intricate details found in, for example, metal objects with soldered decorations. Finishing treatment of models, for example to create a metallic surface, gives a surface which is very sensitive to wear and tear and which quickly starts to look worn down.
  • It is expensive to create high tactile and visual quality 3D models. Often more expensive than having a craftsman make a copy from an authentic material.
  • Creating and optimising 3D models for printing, as well as configuring and maintaining 3D printers, requires skills and technical resources which museums often do not have internally.