#FridayDHSpotlight: 3D Printing our Cultural Heritage by Ariane Lo

In today’s #FridayDHSpotlight, we welcome Pomona College Senior in Art History, Ariane Lo, who reflects on her research on the practicalities and ethical implications of 3D printing.


Failed attempt using transparent filament.

Failed attempt using transparent filament.

It is past midnight in the High-Performance Computing Laboratory at Pomona College and for the sixth time, I recalibrate an uncooperative 3D printer.  For the past semester, I have been trying to critically assess the use of new technologies, like 3D printing and Virtual Reality, in Art History.  Professor Patricia Blessing very kindly supported and supervised my foray into this intersection of art and technology in the form of an independent study; she met with me weekly to help make sense of every new confusing knot I would reach in my research.  By now, I should have printed 15% of a plastic version of the statue of King Uthal from the Mosul Museum in Iraq.  Instead, the failed attempts pile up in a little blue mound.  Artist Morehshin Allahyari created this 3D model of King Uthal as part of her Material Speculation: Isis (2015-2016) series, along with 11 other artefacts destroyed by ISIS.  Her haunting transparent statuette contains files stored on a USB thumb drive, like a time-capsule of sorts.  The transparent filament in our Lab demonstrably disliked slight changes in temperature, so our King Uthals are in festive blue and yellow.

Allahyari’s manifesto at the exhibition in Nantes.

Allahyari’s manifesto at the exhibition in Nantes.

I first encountered Allahyari’s work in April 2019, at an exhibition on utopias in a refurbished biscuit factory in Nantes, France.  I was stuck by the strange “3D Additivist Manifesto” she wrote with Daniel Rourke – it reads: “We declare that the world’s splendour has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of crap, kipple and detritus.”  The Material Speculation project falls under clause 5 sub-clause ii which calls for “technical methods for the copying and dissemination of artworks.”   The premises laid by this seemingly total embrace of 3D printing (as the rest of the confusing manifesto carries some somber undertones) unsettled me and stayed in my mind over the summer.  I work with 3D printing and Virtual Reality at the High-Performance Computing Lab on campus, so I know first-hand the excitement of printing and transforming an idea into a material object.  The HPC lab (now baptized InTheKnow Lab) provides a unique environment for students to explore parallel computing (which we define as anything requiring more than one computing unit) and thoughtfully examine the different tools they encounter.  Asya Shklyar, the director of HPC, guided my groggy self on Wednesday mornings to troubleshoot my project and keep me abreast of the latest devices employed in art institutions.  Two HPC members, Jan Charatan and Jude Iredell, also dedicated their time to help me.

The HPC Lab at Pomona College.

The HPC Lab at Pomona College.

I appreciate the use of new technologies to document artefacts, from Professor Andrew Tallon’s invaluable scans of the Notre-Dame Cathedral to the 360-degree tours on the website 3D Mekanlar (which I used to write a paper on mosques in the Ottoman Empire).  Yet, in those instances, technological innovations simply serve as sophisticated aids for documentation and a means to complement pre-existing tools, like photography.  Cultural institutions, like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, frequently upload 3D object files onto online repositories like MyMiniFactory, Thingiverse or Sketchfab.  Passionate individuals like Geoffrey Marchal or Cosmo Wenman also made a great number of scans available on the Internet, and their followers actively print these models and share their results on forums.  But what happens when we print these 3D models for an art historical purpose?  Do they bring forth a new and enlightening perspective on their originals?

The final printed figure.

The final printed figure.

Blue pile of King Uthals.

Blue pile of King Uthals.

When I returned to the lab the next morning, a sepulchral figure had emerged from the printing plate.  Past the initial elation of successfully participating in part of Allahyari’s artistic project, I considered the practical applications of my print and struggled to see how they could enrich my understanding the original artefact.  Museum websites often promote the possibility for visitors to touch 3D printed replicas of artworks, but the blue plastic in my hand just felt like plastic.  Further, it was only a fraction of the size of the actual statue in Iraq.  My miniature King Uthal sadly did not shed light on some unprecedented aspect of the destroyed original, but it did confirm my decision to narrow my research to two fields: haptics (touch) and scale.  In other words, I was having a hard time determining how 3D printing could inform us about the touch, texture, and size of historical artefacts.  For the sake of time-management and after experiencing a dozen dizzying Virtual Reality museum tours, I concentrated my efforts on 3D printing and set the parameters of my project to a more basic and affordable printer, like the lab’s trusty Snapmaker.  We did not own a million dollar printer that could print a mammoth tusk in one-go, nor was it efficient for me to slice a cathedral or an Assyrian Lamassu into multiple sections and spend a whole year printing them: so how could a college student use 3D printing in Art History?

Jan monitoring a rook in the polisher.

Jan monitoring a rook in the polisher.

While I agonized over this problem, I read about scales and haptics.  In The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), Emanuele Lugli recounts the introduction of universal standards of measure in medieval Italy (I enjoyed this book greatly).  Our modern-day conception of measures finds its origin in a deeply political process of centralizing state power and measurement systems.  Prior to the establishment of the meter, people did not measure but approximated the size of things – this speaks to conceptions of universality, fairness and accuracy in the West.  Does 3D printing enforce or slowly corrupt our understanding of the size of art objects?  I am still mulling over this book, but there are some potential, and perhaps interestingly misleading, connections to be drawn between pre-metric Italy and the “democratisation” of artworks through 3D printing.  Regarding haptics, David Parisi’s Archaeologies of Touch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2018) served as my introduction to the field and its long unfulfilled promise of touch in virtual reality.  Museums promoting 3D printing also deal with imperfect forms of haptics, as they privilege the form rather than the feel of objects.  In the British Museum, some stands invite visitors to touch “less valuable” artefacts, like a garum (fish sauce) saucer or a shard of ceramic inscribed with imitation-Arabic.  While I work on assembling a mysterious haptics package from the lab next semester, I will be contacting researchers at Stanford University (who participated in a Scripps College exhibition) and the Interact lab at the University of Sussex about their work in haptics.

One article, entitled “A Conversation on Digital Art History” and published in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, was critical in distinguishing the diverging opinions in my mind.  I found myself swayed by either side of a heated email exchange between two art historians, Johanna Drucker and Claire Bishop, who simply could not agree on the value and potential of digital humanities (DH) in their field.  Although their discussion concerned DH in general, Bishop echoed my doubts on 3D printing being a “[tool] for the possibility of analyzing something at some specified point in the future – rather than exciting/polemical interpretive proposals in their own right” (325) but I found myself incensed by Drucker’s point: “You can resist digital work by saying that it has no intellectual excitement, or you can do the work of understanding its intellectual contribution” (326).  I decided to find a more suited artefact to 3D print and try my hand at 3D scanning.  For the former, I settled on printing a full set of Lewis Chessmen, a group of 12th century walrus ivory chess pieces found in Scotland.  Conscious of the capabilities of our lab printer, I wanted to study something beyond the feel of an object’s surface.  The haptic dimension of these chess pieces transcends the feel of ivory to include the way they fit in a player’s hand – their 3D replicas would allow someone to revive the ludic element of these artefacts now on display in museums.  Further, we would be able to match their dimensions to those made public in museum collections online.  So far, the rooks Jan and I have printed look promising.  We used a special type of filament which we then smoothed with alcohol mist in the Polysher machine at the lab.

An attempt at 3D scanning.

An attempt at 3D scanning.

The Williamson Gallery Reserve.

The Williamson Gallery Reserve, currently being reorganized.

My second ambition is to scan and print an art object from a museum on campus and draw a more educated comparison of the two.  Mr. Kirk Delman at the Williamson Gallery was incredibly patient in showing me the museum reserve and the different objects available for scanning.  As my attempt to 3D scan using the Occipital Structure Sensor went awry (I see people scanning human faces in detail so I will try again with better lighting), I will move on to acquire some photogrammetry (photographs and adjusted measurements) skills with the help of another HPC team member, Ino Tsichrintzi.

My work this semester served as a preliminary hands-on exploration of the difficulties in apprehending scale and haptics in the 3D printing of artefacts.  While perhaps unglamorous and at times frustratingly slow, my research helped me frame key considerations that I will develop as these technologies grow increasingly sophisticated.  Learning about the current technical difficulties in reproducing the touch and size of objects in a college lab, and my apprehension in valuing my first plastic King Uthal, led me to reevaluate my ways of understanding art.  After a restful winter break, I anticipate another brain-scrapping dive into problems of originality – after I finish printing my chess set and learn to properly operate the 3D scanner.


Born and raised in Singapore, Ariane is Franco-Taiwanese and studies Art History and Politics at Pomona College.  She joined the High-Performance Computing Lab in 2018, and has since led team projects exploring the intersections of art and technology

#FridayDHSpotlight: The Research Studio Series Round Up by Trevor Anthony

In today’s #FridayDHSpotlight, Trevor Anthony, a first year graduate student at the Claremont Graduate University, reviews the inaugural semester of the Research Studio Series.


Digital Tool Shed, The Claremont Colleges Library

Sipping coffee from my DH@CC cup, I take the opportunity to re-cap the Fall 2019 Research Studio Series, following my first semester at CGU. This series proved a valuable way for a newbie to acclimate to the Claremont scene. Kudos to Jeanine Finn, Leigh Lieberman and Aaron Hodges for organizing the series and the presenters who demonstrated the vibrant life of the Digital Humanities at The Claremont Colleges:

Mark Buchholz from The Claremont Colleges Library kicked things off with “A Primer on Digitization Programs,” featuring the case study of the archive of that noted (and perpetually frustrated) celebrity predator, Wile E. Coyote. The digitization of archives, a “bedrock” manifestation of DH, represents the democratization of information – a boon to scholars as well as society-at-large. As Mark described, there is a great deal of art as well as science involved in digitizing an archive.

The advent of digital tools in scholarly practices represents a rather literal side of DH. Leigh Lieberman presented a test-drive of the Zotero open-source reference management software. Zotero allows the writer to create references and bibliographies for any text editor and integrates directly with Microsoft Word as well as JSTOR. (My 2020 resolutions include getting up-to-speed on this cool tool!) And for those interested in an alternative to the “traditional” Mac or Windows OS, Joseph OsborneAI researcher at Pomona College, provoked with “Reclaiming Personal Computing – or Your Life in Plain Text,” showcasing open-source GNU Emacs. Technically a text editor, I understood Emacs to be a much more expansive platform, offering the ability to manage one’s computing experience in a single, highly customizable environment. If you crave customization (and possess the heart-of-a-hacker), then Emacs is for you!

The Scalar publishing platform, offering an alternative to the traditional, linear academic “paper” format, is especially useful for integrating media into one’s work. T. Kim-Trang Tran from Scripps College shared some of her Scalar work, including an ongoing, collaborative class-based project. While Scalar integrates with YouTube quite well, she highlighted Creative Commons as an alternative for those who prefer to host our own media files. This fair use /public media archive is intended to support the reuse of media in scholarly and creative contexts.

If DH thought-leaders like Jerome McGann are to be taken at their word, our future as humanists may require that we build up some coding chops. And for those tempted by the siren song of DH to get their hands “dirty” with programming, Jeanine Finn led the Python working group. We began our travels in Python with the Anaconda programming environment, and she recommended Coursera’s University of Michigan 4-part “crash course” as a good way to get our feet wet.

The Reading Group session on September 27 delved into the complex question of labor – student and otherwise – in the DH sphere, for example, with “Student Labour and Training in Digital Humanities.” Asya Shklyar, the Director of High Performance Computing at Pomona College, shared her thoughts on staffing of projects. Given the multi-disciplinary, team-based character of DH projects, staffing considerations will demand more attention as DH projects become more pervasive.

In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, James Coltrain and Stephen Ramsay promote video games as vehicles for humanities scholarship. Recent Pomona graduate Gerard Bentley demonstrated this in sharing his project, “Tagging and Understanding Video Game Affordances,” suggesting that video game learning techniques and AI represent undiscovered country for DH.

As you can see, a variety of inspiring presentations! Thanks to all who shared their work and thoughts. I am looking forward to DH@CC in 2020. Onward!


Trevor Anthony is a first-year student at CGU, pursuing a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies with a Media Studies concentration. He has over 15 years of experience in media development and production; he is a graduate of Duke University and the Yale School of Drama.
Stay tuned for more information early next week about the Spring 2020 Research Studio Series, when we share our schedule for the whole semester. In the meantime, join us for our first session, next Thursday, January 30th from 2:00 P.M. – 3:30 P.M. in The Research Studio: Unmaking/Remaking Memory Work: Building a Community-centered Digital Archive. In the last decade, new community-centered digital archiving initiatives have grown immensely in recognition that traditionally ignored communities should have a role in how their histories get told. In this workshop, CGU M.F.A. student and founder of @latinx_diaspora_archives, William Camargo, and CGU Ph.D. student and co-founder of the Latinx digital archiving collective ImaginX en Movimiento (IXeM), Marisa Hicks-Alcaraz, will share their experiences building community-oriented digital archives. With the tools and strategies outlined in this workshop, we hope attendees will leave with new ideas for implementing community-engaged and justice-based recuperation methods in their own research and teaching.

Starting 2020 Off on the Right Foot!

Welcome back to campus, friends and fans of DH@CC! Check out our first newsletter of the year to preview what we’ve got in store this semester. If you’re not already signed up for our mailing list, you can easily do so here to stay up to date on our upcoming events.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all materials licensed by the CC 4.0 BY-NC License.

DH@CC has been made possible through a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.