menu Menu
The Nature and Redemption of the Anti-Hero Previous Collaboration and Transmedia Futures in Spatial Scholarship Projects Next

Authenticity vs. Accessibility: A Debate for the Modern Museum

The Potential of 3D Scanning Art and Artifacts

3D scanning has obvious uses when concerning digital heritage artefacts, but what about fine art? Paintings are, traditionally, viewed and digitally reproduced as 2D images on the Internet, but this ignores the obvious benefits of being able to see and analyse brushstrokes and rarely conveys actual size. 3D scans have the opportunity to revolutionize not only how we learn and conserve paintings, but also how we interact and display them. 3D scans offer society the opportunity to interact with masterpieces in ways they never have before, creating new and wonderful things as art is supposed to evolve. Scans allow for more powerful conservation techniques to be developed, as the exact affect time and the environment has on a painting will become apparent with side-by-side scans. What more, they can revolutionise current museum spaces. No longer do museums have to house incomplete collections, as, unpopular though the notion may be, these scans can produce identical copies to these masterpieces, allowing for more museums to carry artwork and also freeing up budget for investment into new ways to display their collections. Technology has the ability to completely change how we learn and view art, and it starts with 3D scans and digital collections. Museums and the public alike just need to be open to the experience that the digital information can provide, and not blindly adhere to the notion of ‘authenticity’.

Just as the invention of photography revolutionised mankind’s ability to document the world, so has 3D scanning. The concept of using triangulation techniques has a 5000-year history, as certain researchers (Breuckmann, 2014) claim, however 3D scanning in and of itself was only realised recently. Initially used for surface inspection, the possibilities for 3D scans purvey all across the board, from medical uses, to geographical uses, and now, even imperative to furthering out research in cultural heritage fields. 3D scanning works by compiling “a set of single scans from different viewing positions,” (Breuckmann, 2014) however the technology that captures high-definition 3D scans is improved upon constantly by companies and researchers alike. The means one uses to capture a 3D scan varies from user to user (Breuckmann 2014, Akça et al 2007, Pezzati and Fontana 2008) and, in many cases, captures different information at varying times.

The uses for 3D scans are endless, especially for objects that are traditionally seen as 2-Dimensonal. Artworks have been photographed and distributed in both print and digitally for years now, with high-quality images provided by museum shops in order to generate income. However paintings are not photographs; physical objects were used in their creation, and brushstrokes, aging, and other topographical features are as much of an interest to researchers, students, and art enthusiasts alike. The possibilities for collecting 3D scans of these artworks are immense for everyone. Insidde (Dibeklioglu 2015) is researching into software models that will model brushstroke characteristics. Their results show that “high level characteristics of brushstrokes provide important clues to classify the painting styles, […] deep learning of representations improves the feature quality, and […] metric learning on human judgements provides a better modelling of brushstroke characteristics.” More in-depth insights could be made into the technique of the artist, the emotion behind it, and how brushstrokes interplay with the scene they create.

Scans, of course, offer many more possibilities. With high-quality scans preserving paintings becomes easier. The affects of age become apparent. So, too, does the damage of transportation of an artwork. By having a catalogued entry of its exact physical form and information on the colours, preserving fine art is no longer guesswork (Siegal, 2013). There is a digital starting-point that can be returned to and compared to whenever it’s seen fit. There is, of course, a lot that we can learn from simply by analysing how time and age do, in fact, change an artwork and how these changes alter our perception of it. (????) Scans also have potential in the digital sphere; online museums can offer their guests multiple views of the same image that has traditionally only been seen head-on. For new art, scans offer a means to copyright the work. This would typically be done as Koller et al (2009) have suggested in their paper “Research Challenges for Digital Archives of 3D Cultural Heritage” where they describe the possibility of using steganographic approaches to authenticate date by inserting a “watermark”. They claim that not only can this approach be used to authenticate digital copies, but it can also prevent “model recovery attacks” or alterations to the digital model.

Further possibilities of 3D scans, however, involve manipulating the data at hand. The possibilities of new interpretations of fine art are as diverse as they are for other forms. Just as music, dance, or dramatic works can be reinvented and reintroduced to the public, so too can fine art itself (Bohn 1999). Reinterpreting art is, arguably, both a natural progression and a necessary one. Naturally people have already recreated famous artworks of their own, however 3D scans offer a new dimension. With 3D technology, recreations of famous paintings have been made and introduced, even before 3D printing. Researchers Carbon and Hesslinger (2013), for instance. These two researchers took the Mona Lisa and the “Prado Mona Lisa”, two very similar paintings (one of which is believed to be painted by a student of da Vinci’s). They were not, however, painted from the same perspective. From there, a 3D image was created, similar to how we are now familiar with viewing 3D movies. With this technology, therefore, it is entirely possible to create a world within the paintings, and see something that was painted flat in the same means we see reality. This 3D recreation, however, is nothing more than an image produced two dimensionally on a screen.

Fine art has, for a long time, been inaccessible to blind individuals. While the physical object of the painting itself is, technically, 3D, paintings are not to be touched, to the point where they are either roped off or shielded behind bulletproof glass as the Mona Lisa is. With 3D technology, this can be rectified, and what once was meant to be viewed and appreciated can now be touched and understood. The Unseen Art project is one example of this. The project’s outlook is to “[r]e-create classical art paintings in 3D so that they may be touched and felt, both in exhibitions and in people’s homes” (” One could argue that a 3D rendition of a painting is against what the artist intended – otherwise why not create a sculpture? However we must recreate and reimagine art in order for it to transcend itself. With 3D technology and its industry which is quickly becoming more accessible to the everyday person, it only makes sense that we push our efforts to make art as accessible as possible.

With the added element of three-dimensional printing, scans can then be seen as a blueprint for future projects. Recreated masterpieces can be used to fund exhibitions, galleries, or museums, as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has. The project was conducted in collaboration with Fujifilm in Japan and the goal was to “produce high-quality 3-D reproductions of masterpieces by such artists as Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh” (Siegal 2013). This project aimed to create a reproduction that did not just mimic


…the color, but also the thickness of the paint and the brushwork, and, in the case of the Fujifilm reproductions, include both the front and the back of the painting, as well as the frame. They can be best compared to reliefs, and in fact, the Fujifilm van Goghs have been named “Relievos.” (Siegal 2013)


Axel Rüger further explains in the article that he believes that these 3D reproductions are just the next step in the aim of recreating the original, which photography and before that lithographs have already done. These “relievos” were created in the hope that they would be purchased, as the museum itself is mostly self-financed and, at the time, required renovations. The only difference between the original and these recreations, they claim, is that they cannot capture the “luminescence” of the painting, that there are certain “particles of paint in it that shine”. This downfall, however, sounds more similar to Benjamin’s view that only the original artworks have “aura” that any replica lacks. Regardless, 3D technology is developing, which leads to further questions: could any of these exact replicas find their way into a museum exhibition?

3D printing is, technically, already being used in museums, but only for objects and only for the purpose of guests handling them (Bailly 2015). This progression is both ingenious as well as practical, with the only drawback the unfortunate view that “replicas are less valuable”, even when what is replicated is something that a visitor would never normally see, such as the Chauvet cave or very fragile artefacts that cannot be viewed without risk of its complete destruction. Furthermore, although the concept of touching a genuine artefact is compelling, the reality is that in many cases the only way to handle an artefact is by handling its reproduction. We as humans learn a lot from touch, which is likely why museums, such as Museum of London, have extended their initial Object Handling project from specific groups, such as schools or those with visual impairments, to everyone. This argument for replicas, however, does not extend to fine art. There was never a purpose to fine art except for that of viewing. As replicas are generally detested, there is no purpose to hold a replica painting in an exhibition. Not even if a replicated painting completed a collection, or enhanced the audience’s understanding. But are replicas really so abhorrent that we have to ban them from museums?

The primary function of museums is no longer to display the wealth of a nation or to showcase what one country has looted from another (Bailly 2015). In the 20th century, this original purpose was cast aside as museums were emancipated from their initial purpose and sought instead to convey the “messages they wanted to convey to their audience, as well as how to do so” (Bailly 2015). The vain requirement we all seem to have in seeing authentic artworks, then, seems to derive from the museum’s original purpose, as insisting only on authentic objects only detracts from being able to tell a complete story. Is information really less valuable than seeing a bonafide artefact? Certainly there is the fascination with seeing historic objects, to feel the history and appreciate the context. Furthermore, we do live in a society where, as Klaus Müller states in his essay “Museums and Virtuality” (????) our “experiences are increasingly produced, translated, or shaped by media” and that “the museum often seems to be the only place to find the “authentic” (p.23). Yet museums are already filled with replicas, like many of the dinosaur bones on display (Ashby 2014). These replicas are labelled as such, and yet, the fact that they are not authentic bones does not detract from the experience. This is perhaps due to the size of the exhibition, and yet again due to its status as an object, rather than as painting.

The difference, it seems, is due to what John W. Bohn states in his essay is the difference between ‘autographic’ art form and ‘allographic’ (1999) art. This is particularly true amongst other art forms, as no one bats an eye to reproductions of manuscripts or dramatic art, music, or even reproducible art, like photography or film. Braun is a firm believer in including replicas into a museum’s repertoire, after all, what if a museum cannot afford the original? Should it simply have to make due without a key piece from a collection? With digital technology, a hybrid response can be produced, but the debate remains the same. With 3D technology we can create exact replicas, and in the future, these replicas will likely be indistinguishable from the originals. What then? If the artwork is identical, should there really be any protest when 3D scanning and printing will allow the public access to art in a way like never before? To put these questions into perspective, imagine not the large, famous museums that are featured in tourist ‘To Do’ lists, but instead on community museums. For many people, visiting these museums offers a challenge, both geographically as well as financially. Back in 1999, the Association of Art Museum Directors endorsed replicas for “teaching” or “decorative purposes, but “not for display as an object of serious aesthetic appreciation in itself” (Bohn 1999). Could replicas not be made an distributed for “teaching” purposes? Would a complete collection not benefit understanding more than an incomplete one?

Bohn believes that “treating art forms as autographic tremendously diminishes the effectiveness of museums” (p.57). He compares museums to libraries, and laments the disparages between them. Whereas only specific museums have certain artefacts, libraries are guaranteed to hold all of the greatest classics in literature. Furthermore, as he claims “If duplicates could replace originals, the works of early artists would no longer attract such a large share of the money spent on art” (p.57).

He goes on to claim that, since there is such emphasis on authentic artefacts, there is the perpetuated culture of looting to supply the demand. This destruction inevitably damages historical sites, and with 3D technology today, the possibility of returning an artefact back into its original context. The emphasis on authenticity also neglects current history, and lesser known artists who, though they are not as famous as others, are equally important in terms of our cultural history. The arguments he posits against using replicas aren’t as pressing as they were then, either. Exact replicas can be made, and as they are machine-made and not man-made, there isn’t a chance of inaccuracy, or even a different mind-set behind the paintbrush.

Restorations, however, pose just as many complications as replicas do. Time and chemicals (found and produced naturally or otherwise, in the case of pollution) change the composition, colours, and even the texture of a painting. Technically, a painting altered by time is not the same as it was at the point of its conception, yet because it is age and the environment that has altered its appearance, we accept it. Aging in this case would, naturally, be a part of the paintings history and not necessarily a ‘flaw’ in the design. It wouldn’t, however, be as the artist intended. That is where restorations come in; experts lovingly fix artefacts and return them, theoretically, to their former glory. John Perreault (2010) takes these restorations to be just another replica, stating that “one day you will awaken and realize that all the artworks you love are replicas.” In his view, restorations are a paradox, and he states that “displaying art is inimical to preserving it.” So, with restorations abound and plenty, what is the difference between a replica and a restoration? Other than the original existing underneath it, what is the difference to an average viewer? In many ways, it could be argued that the best way to preserve culture is to conserve it, use it as the blueprints of models that can be used and viewed without worrying about damage. Digital copies and 3D printing allow this possibility to come true, and allow famous artworks to remain untouched by others’ hands. Furthermore, the argument against replicas in favour of restorations does not acknowledge the value in replicas themselves. Paintings have become famous simply for being replicas, and replicas are, in very specific circumstances, displayed (Bohn 1999).

Replicas are already used to enhance understanding, either as a tool, a ploy to real in crowds (Grimes 2014) or as a historical artefact in and of itself, in the case of replicas made close enough to the time of the artist. The difference is merely how a museum wishes to convey the reasoning behind using a replica (Bohn 1999). Being more liberal with replicas will offer museums the chance to “create exhibitions either very rare or impossible today” by “bringing together all the works of one artist, for example, or showing how different artists have treated the same subject” (Bohn 1999, p.63). Digital technology gives us the opportunity to not only bring Bohn’s vision to life, but it also circumvents the traditional grievances against replicas. There is no possibility of physical inaccuracy, for instance, and if a museum is truly against displaying a 3D copy created from a digital blueprint, then it can opt for an entirely digital experience instead. Filling in the missing pieces of a collection is imperative, and not doing so is plain vanity on a museum’s part. Information should be made accessible to all, and emphasis should be given to generating the correct experience, rather than cater to an old ideal of fake authenticity. Replicas have the potential to be more true to the original painting than restorations do, and technology itself has the limitless potential to enhance the experience and understanding of the painting by not only allowing fragile items to return to the public eye, but also by creating an experience traditional museums can’t; that of context.

3D scans of artworks provide curators and the public alike with the ability to experience a more detailed, multi-viewpoint version of something many would have only seen in two dimensions. Scans have impressive curation potential, and the information alone would allow future artists to interpret and manipulate the information into new art forms. Furthermore, 3D scans allow for the existence of 3D printing, something that can revolutionise museums all around the world. Digital humanists should put as much emphasis and research into the relationship between the digitisation of an entity and into its reproduction, as the relationship is both inherent and important. 3D printing, although concerns the opposite of what digital humanists generally concern themselves with, can only exist with digital entities to produce from. The relationship is non-negotiable, and so too should be the interest into the practice itself. Until then, however, as the viewpoint on replicas is not likely to change for some time, importance should be placed on incorporating 3D scans and augmented reality into exhibitions. Digital information is, arguably, the only way to bridge the gap between the museum collection and the original context. If all artwork is scanned for immediate conservation following its completion, this practice that the opportunity to highlight the affect of age on an artwork and how it changes the relationship between the painting and the viewer.

As Klaus Müller points out, though “digital heritage projects have stored images of countless artefacts in collections databases […] few museums have fully embraced the diverse possibilities of having an unlimited space for display and communication.” (p.21) In his view, any debate about whether a museum’s purpose is the display of objects or ideas is irrelevant when considering virtual displays. There doesn’t have to be an either or with the potential of digital museums. Furthermore, he points out that the act of placing any object, painting or otherwise, is to remove it from its original context and inject it into “museum order” (p.24). The digital copy, however, can help bridge the gap back from the alienated object back into its context, as well as including “interactive options for exploring its characteristics and history.” (p.24) Virtual reality, online exhibitions, and scanned items, however, only hold value when viewed in a larger context. One cannot appreciate an artist’s technique or growth if he or she only views one painting compared to the entire collection. One can certainly not appreciate any artwork or artefact if it is deemed too fragile to view. As Müller claims, “museums no longer require buildings. (p.30), although by relying on simulated spaces, there is the risk of “Disneyfication” (p.29). The gains of recreating space and inserting any object back into the context it originated from, or simply recreated an artefact, location, or artwork that has been lost to society outweigh any possibilities of turning the experience into one reminiscent of a theme park, however. As long as there is accuracy, digital collections are vital (Müller ???).

The possibilities of these digital collections have, once again, found output back into reality. Companies such as Insidde have been developing programs and tools that allow augmented reality to purvey museum exhibitions. Their project, specifically designed to “[bring] art closer to citizens by promoting the use of smartphones and tablets” (Insidde 2015) is just one project that marries the dichtonomy of the virtual collection with the physical collection found on site. More importantly, it combines the benefits of digital information with the inherent values of a physical environment that contains the original artworks. There is no either or; a viewer does not have to merely rely on what they can see with their naked eye in, likely, a dimly lit room nor do they have to immerse themselves in a digital environment, albeit an interactive one. These two concepts are the future of museum exhibitions, allowing for information to be digested more naturally and personally while also holding on to their values of containing “authentic” artwork. This solution, however, does not apply to smaller museums that do not hold grand collections. Those museums would still benefit from the practice of 3D printed replicas, or, perhaps, a means to view in real-time the missing artworks from their far-off location.

The augmented reality proposed in this project would “[unveil] unknown features in paintings (hidden paint layers, underdrawings, brushstrokes, etc.) by using THz scanner so as to enhance the access to cultural resources” (p.1-2). Technology is personal; using your own phone or tablet imbues a sense of ownership and an individual understanding of what is being presented. Augmented reality would recreate the feelings of interaction, and therefore connect a viewer with the artwork in ways he or she cannot with the physical object. The virtual aspect would not detract from the experience of appreciating the genuine article. It would only enhance it. By incorporating technology and cultural heritage, we will not only learn more, we can appreciate more. This particular augmented reality program works by utilising a “recognition and tracking system”. It would then allow the user “access to a great amount of related information such as the author, history or chronology” as well as highlighting key areas of the painting (p.4). With the personal nature of using our own technology, we are free to spend as much or as little time on a particular painting as we please.

With technology being developed constantly, it only makes sense to incorporate them into our museums and exhibitions. 3D scans offer complete sets of data on any artefact, regardless whether it is an object, a location, or even a painting. These scans are not only revolutionary from a conservator’s point of view, but also for the future of museums in general and for the public. The affects of age and the environment can be documented and analysed. Future conservations efforts for modern paintings will be perfect; copyright protected, and with technology protection on these scans can be implemented. Scans, as they are merely data, can be distributed across the globe, and offer more in terms of teaching than simple 2D images. Scans also offer the potential for new, hybrid art to emerge, such as the case of the 3D digital Mona Lisa and her 3D printed counterpart. Scans, furthermore, offer the opportunity to create identical replicas. These replicas, if museums and the public opinion changes, can complete existing collections without exhausting a museum’s budget and also be made available to smaller museums, and therefore people who are not geographically close or financially capable of visiting the originals. Scans and other means of analysing artwork are, in general, useful in learning and understanding artwork itself. Augmented and virtual reality will, naturally, fill in the gaps between the space of the museum and the original context that a painting or artefact was created in. Using scans, these digital realities will be able to offer users a complete understanding of a painting or collection, particularly if there are underpaintings and more importantly if whatever object is too delicate for public view. The technological opportunities that scans and software offer is exponential, and as the world adapts and evolves its way of learning and connecting with its surroundings, so too should museums.

academic art conservation cultural accessibility debate

Previous Next