Illustration by Martin Cole
Illustration by Martin Cole

When Cosmo Wenman went to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in late May, he did what many people do.

He took photos of some of his favorite sculptures. But instead of a few snapshots, Wenman took hundreds of pictures, documenting busts and reliefs from every accessible angle. Then he did something currently unusual -- but likely to become common.

Wenman turned the photos into three-dimensional digital maps, using a free program called Autodesk 123D Catch. Then he used the maps to print miniature plastic replicas on the $2,000 MakerBot 3-D printer in his home office. And he made one of his best scans freely available, uploading it to the Thingiverse site where MakerBot enthusiasts share digital plans. Now, alongside the hobbyist designs for specialty tools, robot figurines and hair ornaments, you can find an 18th-century relief, John Deare’s “Venus Reclining on a Sea Monster with Cupid and a Putto.”

On Thingiverse, you can also find data maps for around three dozen sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Unlike Wenman’s one-man amateur venture, these scans are the result of an official collaboration between MakerBot Industries LLC and the Met. This month, the museum hosted a two-day “Hackathon” in which artists working with MakerBot staff members and equipment used the same process to create scans and replicas of Met sculptures, as well as their own derivative works.

Digital Scans

The technology is still primitive and frustrating, and the scans it produces are far from perfect, but the future is clear. The masterworks of three-dimensional art are joining the digital commons. For art lovers, this technological moment represents a tremendous opportunity. The combination of digital scans and inexpensive 3-D printing could do for three-dimensional art what prints have been doing for paintings and drawings for 500 years: make these works familiar, beloved and visually influential to people who will never have a chance to see them in person.

“If you’re an art teacher who can get your hands on a MakerBot, you can now create a section of the Met that you can have in your classroom to inspire your students,” says Bre Pettis, the co-founder and chief executive officer of MakerBot Industries and a former middle-school art teacher in Seattle. It’s a chance, in Wenman’s words, “to spread faithful reproductions of treasured artwork far beyond the walls of elite palaces.”

The question is how the elite palaces will react. Will the institutions that own the originals encourage making data maps public? Or will museums try to lock up the digital versions of their treasures, so that duplication becomes a pirate activity? Attempts at the latter might ultimately fail, but they would still slow down and stigmatize a process that could greatly enhance the value of the world’s artistic heritage.

The initial response, by the Met and the Getty, is encouraging.

Pettis says he always assumed that digitizing sculptures would require a virtual “heist” involving an expensive scanner and a lot of subterfuge. Instead, photo-stitching software got increasingly powerful and the country’s most prestigious museum embraced the idea. “It turns out they have the same values that I do,” he says of Met officials.

Global Audience

Art museums are, after all, nonprofit educational institutions run by people who love art and want to share it. They have lawyers who fret about copyrights on recent works, of course. (Museums often own the objects but not reproduction rights.) But when it comes to objects more than a century old, let’s hope the prospect of a little gift shop revenue pales before the thrill of reaching a new and enthusiastic global audience.

“It’s really exciting to see people taking such an interest in our collection,” says John Giurini, the Getty’s assistant director of public affairs, when asked about a YouTube video Wenman posted about his project.

Wenman, who is an old friend of mine, argues that disseminating digital scans will actually enhance the importance of museum originals, as more people come to know and cherish the artworks and well-documented provenance becomes even more important in establishing authenticity. “Museums will eventually be measured by the quality of the data they publish, and their expert scholarship and curation, as much as by the collections they control,” he writes in an essay accompanying the video.

Taking enough photos to create a scan can itself change the way you experience a work of art. “You really get to know the object,” says Pettis, who was surprised to find that photographing Rodin’s Madame X at the Met left him with the kind of detailed memory he used to get from sketching objects, even though the process took only five or 10 minutes.

“I actually know the pieces of her hair, how her ear attaches to her head, how her nostrils go up, what her chin looks like,” he adds. “I can start thinking about, What is the statue feeling? This is an experience that usually only fine artists get to have with objects.” Cleaning up a scan, or looking at it on the computer as a series of lines and triangles, further familiarizes one with the sculpture’s structure. Pettis suggests that the technology might provide a “secret pathway through art education.”

Pure Relationship

Scans can also provide fodder for new sculptures and who-knows-what other applications. (The Met Hackathon has already led to a music video, “We Met Heads On,” available at Vimeo.com.) A digital representation is, after all, the ultimate abstract art, turning physical objects into the pure relationship of points in space.

It will take more than tacit museum approval and a few special events to come anywhere close to Pettis’s ultimate goal. “When I started MakerBot,” he says, “I really quickly started thinking about, ‘How do we acquire all the art of the world so we can reproduce it?”’ Toward that end, he hopes to inspire groups of friends to do their own grass-roots “scan-a-thons,” visiting museums or other art-filled public spaces, capturing objects, and uploading the files. “Try it with a group of friends,” he exhorts. “Make it an event. Make it a party.”

But museums need not leave the scanning job up to amateurs armed with digital cameras. Top-flight institutions already have scanning and 3-D modeling departments for conservation and study efforts. Unfortunately, their scans aren’t available to the public. Far-sighted museums could inventory and release what they have on hand. With patron support, they could sponsor still more.

Institutions could also get creative, finding tech-savvy partners. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, for instance, might enlist students and faculty from Carnegie Mellon University’s high-powered engineering, industrial design and visual arts programs -- not only playing to the university’s strengths but also updating a venerable museum tradition.

Plaster Casts

The Carnegie Museum still displays one of the few remaining large collections of plaster casts reproducing classic works of architecture and sculpture. Such exacting reproductions were a popular 19th-century way of permitting people who couldn’t afford to travel to study three-dimensional works in detail. (The Victoria & Albert Museum in London also has a large cast collection, as well as its own great collection of potentially scannable decorative art and sculpture.) Twentieth-century tastemakers scorned such half measures, forcing impecunious art lovers in out-of-the-way places to content themselves with photographs. Now digital scans and 3-D printers promise to restore that lost access and spread it to just about anyone anywhere.

The high-tech effort to bring art to the masses does have something of a can-do 19th-century spirit about it. Andrew Carnegie, who also sponsored more than 2,500 public libraries, would approve.

Wenman imagines a different 19th-century precedent. He envisions a public-spirited race for private status, with billionaire filmmakers and tech tycoons competing to outdo one another with the quality, cleverness and exoticism of the scans they sponsor. “Somebody could do a Victorian-style expedition: ‘I want to send someone to the Yucatan to do this Mayan sculpture. I want the highest resolution. I don’t care if you have to buy equipment, just get it done. I want you to select a grad student who’s working on something connected to it. I want a nice little essay about it,”’ he suggests.

The real prestige would come, however, from releasing the scan to the public domain, with the sponsor’s name attached. It’s a way of becoming the Medici or Carnegie of the digital era.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel at vp@dynamist.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.