Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Ever Murkier World of Replicating Heritage

There are a lot of sides to 3D printing archaeology...

Ever since Sustainable Archaeology obtained a 3D printer, I have been struggling with very conflicting thoughts on this capacity we have. On the one hand, I'm dazzled by the technology and think it pretty darn cool to print out objects to size or scaled... or even reassembled. On the other hand, the ability to print a 3D model - to "adjust" or improve on the original artifact - feels a bit like a line being crossed, raising for me a host of questions about the limits of dissemination, who should be getting a say on what can and can't get printed, the obvious "let's make some money from these" sentiments that people seem too quickly to rush towards, etc. On the other hand, I find we are asked all the time by Descendant groups asking for prints of artifacts so they can have a copy, it can be displayed in a Council office, they have a copy of an object repatriated and reburied, or a desire to have a printed copy of an important object in a ceremony. So I appreciate that this is a complex topic, which is why I have been mulling it over in my head and wanting to talk about in class and, later on, at the SAA meetings in April.


One recurring strand of these musings has been an uncertainty I have over the increasing tendency for Museums and cultural institutions to widely make 3D models of objects in their holdings accessible online. Clearly part of the impulse to provide wide access and appreciation of the heritage, and at least in some cases embracing the principles of Open Access, I was intrigued by a post I stumbled across recently that talked about how the British Museum has decided to allow people to download and print 3D models of select artifacts from its holdings.

As the post notes, other Museums are also following suit. Of course, the Smithsonian is all about digitizing millions of its holdings, and you can print a bust of Abraham Lincoln... or Barak Obama, to your heart's content! This is part of a broader trend of Museums to digitize art and collections, and make them accessible and even inviting people to be creative in repurposing the images. Generally, the sentiment, reflected in comments such as by Nina Simon, is that this is a good thing, creating access where there was none before.

The British Museum is providing access to these models through Sketchfab, Which is an upload and share site for all kinds of 3D models... you can come across artifacts, sites and other heritage features available as 3D models, some done very well, some less so. More notable is Threeding, a web page that purports among other things, to preserve the past by allowing you access to high resolution 3D models of various types of heritage objects, including a few Egyptian objects. Apparently Threeding is Now partnering with Artec Group to expand its offerings of heritage objects.

So here's the thing. The British Museum, Smithsonian, and others scan objects that are clearly a "global" cultural heritage, mostly of other nations and peoples, making that accessible to be consumed and repurposed by anyone anywhere. Indeed, the objects the British Museum has put up so far are all not of English heritage, and speaks to the legacy of the global harvesting of heritage objects over that last few centuries by the British colonial empire. Over at Threeding, a perhaps more insidious feature is charging a fee for 3D models (Roman gravestones for 15-25 dollars a pop... Aztec figure free!). My radar starts going off when I see these trends, as I wonder what the implications are for things like appropriation and Intellectual Property (IP). Certainly the broader implications of how 3D printing can really mess with IP and copyright is a very hot topic for discussion, from Slate Magazine and Zdnet, to a slew of thought pieces from law firms, such as here, and here, and even the Financial Times sees in 3D printing the emergence of the next Napster challenge to copyright laws (see also 3Dprint). Of course, this makes makes me wonder if IP lawyers aren't chomping at the prospect for the "business" this will generate?!

But what of 3D printing cultural heritage? Certainly museums grapple with effective means of managing the digital IP of its holdings, but the discussion tends to be about how to safely and correctly make material accessible and protect the museum's own copyright, as CHIN discusses in a long a technical report. In the UK there is guidance on exceptions to copyright for museums, especially around the mandate to preserve and disseminate cultural heritage. So the "good" of preservation is at least one strand driving concerns to ensure digitization, and even printing, for archaeology continues. But, as Threeding makes clear, making money is going to drive justification for providing access too. This all plays into a broader question of the intellectual property of archaeological objects... cuz now Indigenous images, forms of ceramic decoration, structures, and, really, anything physical that is archaeology, and also someone's or everyone's heritage, can be continually repurposed, not just as images but as objects too.

So of course I have no answers here, just musings! And I will no doubt be musing about these ideas in class, and picking your brains for your thoughts, too, especially since some of you have indicated that creating a 3d model and printing it is something you might like to do for your digital project. And hey, kicking around these ideas will also help shape what I say at the SAAs, thus requiring me to need to cite you all to ensure I don't misappropriate our collective brainstorming! So let me know what you think!

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