The Present and Future of Digital Fabrication in Museums: Interview with Duann Scott, Shapeway’s Designer Evangelist

In December we had a museum crawl, starting downtown with the new elevator shaft-sized Museum (read my review) then headed up to the Museum of Art and Design in Columbus Circle to see Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital. The exhibit explores the many areas of 21st-century creativity made possible by advanced methods of computer-assisted production known as digital fabrication. At the end of our visit, in a large space at the end of a hall, we ran into an old friend of Mooshme, Duann Scott, Designer Evangelist at Shapeways, the online 3D printing service, whom we visited last May (read about the trip). And he wasn’t visiting the exhibit – he was working it.

I pulled out my recorder app and asked Duann to help me understand what a commercial digital fabrication company was doing IN a museum exhibit and how tools of digital fabrication might be democratizing art production.

Hi Duann. What are you doing here?

The curator Ronald Labaco was doing this beautiful exhibition with the best digital fabrication techniques in the world, from the best artists.  And they were looking for someone to help with the interactive space. We took a look at the floor and took a look at the exhibition. We were blown away and just couldn’t help but be involved.

We came in here and set up some 3D printers, we set up a 3D scanner, we set up some apps that visitors can try, and we introduced our designers-in-residence.

What’s are designers-in-residence?

Every week a Shapeways user, a designer, comes and works at the museum floor to design and 3D print. They print it out and talk to visitors, so people can see that real human beings are using 3D printing now, not just specialized experts.

Duann scans AMNH astrophysics educator Brian Levine.

So what’s it like for Shapeways, a 3D printing company, to be in an art museum space?

It’s been really interesting. We have learned a lot. We have learned what people do and do not know from this. It gives us a chance to put materials in people’s hands because a lot of people think that 3D printing is just, you know, plastics, but we give them a chance to touch and feel our sterling silver, our brass, our bronze, our ceramics and high quality nylon.

What are some of the most common misperceptions you hear people expressing?

The biggest thing we have to keep on reinforcing is that everything has to first be a 3D model in a computer.  Everything we print has to be digital objects first.  The other thing is the use of material people don’t expect. We can do complex forms, with detailed things, with strong materials, creating final products, not just prototypes. And also the words sintering — nobody knows what sintering means

I don’t know what sintering is.

Laser sintering is where a laser changes the powdered material without the material liquefying in the heating stage before it solidifies.

So if somebody in New York City wants to see 3D printing they can go down, for example, to the MakerBot Store and see it in a commercial environment. But here people can see it in the context of a museum. How does that change how people understand what a company like Shapeways is all about?

I think the difference is we are not trying to sell the machines; we are not trying to sell the prints.  What we are trying to do is educate people about what this technology is about. We are really interested in people being inspired and empowered to start thinking about how they can use 3D printing in their lives.

Have you had time to go through their three different floors of 3D fabricated art in the museum?

I have many times.

What are some of your favorite pieces and why?

Recently it was great to see the Iris Van Herpen Dress I think it’s the first time an Iris Van Herpen dress has been shown in the USA ever. That’s very exciting to see.

It looks like molluscs stuck to a person.  So it’s not beautiful, but it is very interesting.

Dita Von Teese dress

I am also excited to see projects we have been involved in, like the Dita Von Teese dress, the bikini we printed, and so it very great to see Shapeways users like Nervous System had their designs in the show here, it shows that –.

Sorry, can you explain what you mean by Shapeways user?

Oh, Nervous System is somebody who uses Shapeways to make their objects. And so what that means to me is that the Shapeways users range from everyone from hobbyists, like a model train maker in South Dakota, to people who are at the highest in the art form, like Nervous System.

Everyone has access to the same technology, which is very democratizing and empowering.

It’s great to see Shapeways designers on the same level as the best in the world because they are accessing the same tools.  There are no gatekeepers.  There are no barriers.

As someone who has been deeply invested in digital fabrication for years, what’s something that may have been surprising for you as you walked through the exhibit?

I have been interested in seeing the embrace of errors. I always think, as an artist, it’s fun to push material and see how it fails and see what material can’t do or what the process can’t do. It’s interesting to see the exhibition has lots of those sort of projects, where someone has tried to scan and see what we elaborate and because the 3D scan users infrared light, this reflects and makes these abstract forms.

Projects like that I find interesting. And then the complexity of works like those by Nervous System, like the fractal tables, I find them very interesting.  Things we can’t do in other ways, things that sort of really invoke the material and process.

Jewelry by Nervous System

What do you see in the landscape for the role of digital fabrication in museums in the next say five years?

I see digital fabrication as a way to get people more hands-on with artifacts.  Say we do a scan of an old skull.  We can scan the real thing, print it out with the exact same density, so it’s got the same weight, so anybody can get up and hold it and feel what those artifacts feel like. There is so much room for tactile interactions with 3D printing, and that’s what I am excited about.




About Barry

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