Bringing the Past to Life: The Revolutionary Role of 3D Scanning and 3D Printing in Fossil Exhibits
Written By: Ian Nakamoto, Designer - August 23, 2019
The museum world has always been a delicate balance between preservation and public accessibility. When it comes to fossils, these ancient relics are both invaluable educational tools and fragile pieces of history. Enter 3D scanning and printing—a technological revolution that is redefining how museums manage their fossil exhibits. In this article, we explore the benefits and a real-world example of this groundbreaking approach.
Museums are treasure troves of knowledge and history, but they are also custodians of delicate artifacts that require specialized care. One such area that has significantly benefited from the advent of technology is the conservation of fossils. Among several museums worldwide, the Royal BC Museum in British Columbia, Canada, stands as a noteworthy example of how 3D scanning and printing technologies are revolutionizing the preservation and study of fossilized remains.
The Site C Culture and Heritage Resources Committee—comprised of 13 Indigenous nations and BC Hydro—partnered with W3 Design Group and Forge Labs in 2019 for a unique fabrication project. The aim was to create a 3D printed scale-model reconstruction of a 12,500-year-old fossilized skeleton of a bison occidentalis.
The original plan was to scan each bone of the ancient bison from the Royal BC Museum's collection, creating a digital replica that would serve both scientific and educational purposes. However, the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the works. Due to restrictions, the team could not physically access the museum's collection.
Forge Labs team instead referenced hundreds of photographs taken during the excavation of the bison skeleton to digitally sculpt an accurate replica. The result was a highly detailed digital model that served as the basis for a 3D printed version, made possible through Forge Labs' advanced 3D printing technologies.
SLS 3D Printing Technology Used To Recreate The Fossils
The expert advice and additional anatomical reference generously provided by Dr. Edward H. Davies was essential in accurately recreating anatomical features of the skeleton. The 3D printed parts needed to be high resolution to capture the fine cracks and details in the bones, durable enough to survive repeated touching by audiences, and easy to paint - making selective laser sintering in Nylon 12 an excellent fit. 3D printing using Nylon 12 was able to produce life-size replicas of smaller fossils, giving visitors a unique perspective on these ancient remains. The material was chosen as it was durable enough to create tactile replicas that can be touched, making exhibits more accessible for visually impaired visitors.
All the bones were keyed to allow for easy assembly once printed and to allow for easy alignment of the complex model onto the curved, CNC base.
Finally, the parts were provided to W3 Design Group’s exhibit fabricator Holman, who mounted the bones to a sculpted plinth and painted them - showcasing the skeleton as it would have looked during the initial excavation.
The project carried out by the Royal BC Museum, the Site C Culture and Heritage Resources Committee, W3 Design Group, and Forge Labs is a remarkable illustration of how technology can aid in both the preservation and education of history. By using 3D scanning and printing technologies, we can not only safeguard precious artifacts but also make them more accessible and useful for current and future generations. This project stands as a testament to the synergies between technology and cultural heritage, offering a model for other institutions around the world to follow.
3D scanning and printing technologies have emerged as invaluable tools for the museum industry, offering a winning combination of preservation, detailed study, public engagement, and accessibility. With real-world applications in some of the world's leading museums, this approach ensures that these ancient relics can be both safeguarded and shared—bringing the past to life for generations to come.
Through the use of 3D technologies, we are witnessing a seismic shift in how museums operate, promising a more interactive and enriching experience for visitors while ensuring that precious pieces of our natural history are preserved for future generations. It's a win-win situation for both museums and the public, as we continue to explore new ways of making the past accessible and relevant in a digital age.