3D Printing to Bring Art Closer to the Blind

How can a blind person know what an Iberian sword looked like? Or a Roman cup? The answer lies in this technology, and the virtualisation and reproduction of these objects by way of 3D printing, so that anyone can touch and handle them, without having to worry about the originals being damaged. Something that was unimaginable a few years ago.

Néstor F. Marqués is a specialist researcher in virtual heritage and cultural dissemination, and the application of new technologies in the archaeological sector. Thanks to 3D printing and the Witbox 2, he has managed to bring down the cost of the replicas and also to improve accessibility to the pieces, which, until now, were only exhibited in display cabinets: “in the field of heritage, history and archaeology, 3D printing opens up a world of possibilities because it gives use the tools to create pieces without having to even touch the originals”, he explains. “However, the key aspect in this is accessibility, which allows anyone to feel and enjoy heritage regardless of disabilities or any other kind of impossibility.

Pieza griega hecha con la impresión 3D

Also collaborating with this universal accessibility was Antonio Espinosa, Director of the Vila Museum in Villajoyosa (Alicante), who saw in Néstor’s work the potential for virtualising and printing archaeological pieces that could be touched by the blind. “As they are not modern objects, their shapes are not familiar to us, so it is very difficult for a person with a visual impairment to imagine, for example, what an Iberian sword was actually like”, Néstor explains.

“In the field of heritage, history and archaeology, 3D printing opens up a world of possibilities because it gives use the tools to create pieces without having to even touch the originals”

The researcher and the museum decided to create two collections: a permanent one and a temporary one. The second one, called “Slaves of Beauty”, which explores in depth how the Phoenicians, Greeks, Iberians and Romans dressed and took care of themselves, was inaugurated on May 31st and, in addition to original pieces, collects dozens made in 3D that reproduce sculptures in actual size, “which would otherwise be terribly expensive to get hold of”. Among them, a Greek terracotta head of 4cm height from the museum collection, blown up to over than ten times its size so that it can be better appreciated, the bronze head of Marcus Aurelius from the Capitoline Museums of Rome, the head of Empress Livia from the Museum of Cádiz and the Lady of Cerro de los Santos from the National Archaeological Museum, the star of the collection.

Dama Oferente del Cerro de los Santos impresa en 3D

It has taken over 400 hours of printing, one month and 21 parts to create this sculpture. The impressive result was achieved thanks to the precision of the Witbox 2 and the museum’s restoration team, who painted it so that any difference from the original would be minimal. “It is work which has never been produced before in the history of the heritage of this country”, Néstor claims.

The permanent collection also includes a reproduction, blown up to 12 times the size, of amulets of the museum (1 or 1.5cm) in order to appreciate the iconography, an Iberian sword, a Greek ceramic work and even a Roman epigraphic inscription that will be displayed at the market of Villajoyosa. “Specialists from the ONCE (Spanish National Society for the Blind) have visited the museum and it has been wonderful for them: the power of holding those pieces in their hands, feeling something that they could never have imagined”, Néstor proudly explains.

“Specialists from the ONCE (Spanish National Society for the Blind) have visited the museum and it has been wonderful for them: the power of holding those pieces in their hands, feeling something that they could never have imagined”

The success and originality of these exhibitions has led other centres to do something similar to what was organised in Villajoyosa One of them was the Manacor History Museum (Mallorca). As well exhibiting 3D-printed pieces (prehistoric pots, Roman and medieval oil lamps…), they encourage visitors to wear blindfolds and visit the exhibition with an accompanier, using the sense of touch alone to recognise the figures. An authentic sensory experience.

Vasija hecha con la impresión 3D

Technology that enhances the humanities (and vice versa)

Technology and the humanities are not incompatible concepts, 3D printing can actually do a great deal for the arts. “In the field of humanities, a technology like this is really handy to have. Creating traditional replicas is so expensive and 3D printing not only brings the costs down, it also gives us the security of knowing that we are creating exact replicas”, said Néstor.

One of the main issues is that universities have not yet included these technologies in their curricula, neither as subjects nor course modules. However, there is increasing demand for these techniques from students who don’t know how to apply them because nobody has taught them. That is why professionals like Néstor are fighting to change this situation in the near future.

“If we can harness these technologies in our field and benefit from doing so, we will do gain a lot from it, in terms of documentation, for studying the pieces and for reaching the public. It reaches the public in a familiar format, which in this case is 3D printing. Technology does have a purpose and, in this case, it is welcome”.