Interview with SF Asian Art Museum on Digital Fabrication Scanathons

Things are bubbling. “Scanathons” are happening more often than you might think. At the Field Museum in Chicago. In New York at the Met (and my AMNH as well). And in San Francisco, I just learned, at the Asian Art Museum. In collaboration with museum staff (and sometimes without) people are coming in to photograph public collections – not to post on Flickr or Facebook but, instead, on public repositories for 3D files, like Thingiverse, so people can download and print them out for themselves. Can’t make it to the Met to see a buddha statue? No worries, now you can print your own. To get my head around this soon-to-be-a-NYTimes-article-after-they-stop-writing-about-printing-guns, I invited Janet Bunckhorst to speak with us about her work as the Manager of Web and Digital Media at the Asian Art Museum and what it was like to be subjected to Scanathon.

As way of introduction, please allow me to share the bio sent over by Janet:

Janet used to be the User Experience Manager at Lonely Planet. For a while she consulted in digital strategy, product development and delivery while she figured out how to get a job at a museum. Now she looks after the website and other fun digital stuff for the Asian Art Museum. Mission: Accomplished.

Janet, Thank you for talking with us today. Please introduce the museum where you work and your role there.

No problem Barry! I work at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. We have one of the greatest collections of Asian art outside Asia. I’m the Manager of Web and Digital Media here, which means I look after the website (which we just redesigned) as well as various digital products like apps.

When did you first learn about digital fabrication?

I guess it’s been on my radar for a couple of years. I first started exploring it when I started at the Asian in 2011. Our Marketing Director has a friend who is very involved in the MakerBot community. I also spoke with Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian and all-round finger-on-the-pulse guy when it comes to digital. He put me in touch with Vincent Rossi, the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitzation Coordinator. It was great to have an opportunity to chat with Vince about the things they’re doing. Their work is much more high-fidelity, archival quality scanning – work that might be used by researchers as a true facsimile of the original object. This is far more sophisticated than anything we are thinking about. But it’s really exciting work, and very inspiring.

Seated Buddha

Last September the museum posted seven items to Thingiverse.com – from a Bodhisattva to a Seated Ganesha – that have been printed around 2,000 times, and viewed many times more. How did this come to pass?

Like I said, we had a contact – Gian Pablo Villamil – in the Makerbot community. Gian Pablo knew that the Met had done a ‘Scanathon’, and we all felt that the Asian Art Museum would be perfect for a similar event. He introduced us to Christian Pramuk at Autodesk, and both Christian and Gian Pablo came to do a walkthrough of our collection galleries.

They were pretty excited about the objects in our collection. We have a lot of intricate stone sculpture, which is very well suited to scanning because of the level of detail and the low reflection. We also introduced them to Forrest McGill, our Chief Curator, so they could introduce the project and answer any questions Forrest might have about the process. We then worked together to invite artists to the museum for a two-day Scanathon.

They photographed the objects using iPhones, iPads and DSLRs, then processed the images using Autodesk’s 123D Catch. Autodesk had just launched the 123D Catch iPhone app, which was great because iPhones were perfect in the low light in our galleries. The artists spent the mornings at the museum and the afternoons over at TechShop (a nationwide organization that provides tools, software and space to would-be makers) fabricating the objects. We also had one MakerBot onsite at the museum, courtesy of GP, so we were able to print a couple of things on the spot. And we had the artists upload their models to the museum’s Thingiverse account as well.

Since offering the items, how has the museum responded? How did people take to transferring physical objects in your collections to a sharable, editable, and reproducible digital form?

Rhino Vessel

Luckily for us, Forrest was on board with the project from the start and could really see great possibilities for enabling the public to explore our collection. People obviously had questions about what this would mean for the sharing of images – for example, they wanted to ensure that the caption information stayed with the objects as much as possible, so we made sure we provided good caption data to the folks who were uploading models. We’re fortunate that our collection has a large number of ancient objects where there’s no real concern about IP, so we do have a lot of freedom to experiment with things like this.

Our brand promise is “awaken the past to inspire the next,” and we see this as a way for artists and enthusiasts to be inspired to create new works in direct response to our collection, using the models as a starting point. We would love to take this further by more directly encouraging people to create new works — it’s something I’d like to work on over the next year.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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