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Museum Affairs

3D Printing Works of Art: An Opportunity or Nightmare for Curators?

October, 2022

In an increasingly digitized world, reproductions are omnipresent. An image of any work of art can be retrieved in an instant and digital visits to museums will become increasingly common, given the investments of the Dutch government. These reproductions would have been the stuff of nightmares for the German sociologist Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), who fostered the idea that “mechanical reproduction” (in his case photography) destroys the historical, intimate and personal connection to the work of art – the “aura” – for it becomes a popularized object of the masses, ripped out of its context.1 Why does the original matter, when we can see its reproduction everywhere?

However, the opposite seems to be true: despite the availability of reproductions we have become increasingly obsessed with the breathtaking encounter with the only original.2 Signs of age such as discolorations and craquelure patterns are proof of the work of art’s authenticity and connection to the past. That is precisely what we want to see when we go to a museum. Yet, with traditional and digital reproduction methods (e.g. photography, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)) the work’s unique material qualities are lost. Nevertheless, there is a technology about to change it all: 3D printing.

Fig. 1. Close-up of a 3D print of Vincent van Gogh, <em>Flowers in a Blue Vase</em>, 1885, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 28.5 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo by author

Fig. 1. Close-up of a 3D print of Vincent van Gogh, Flowers in a Blue Vase, 1885, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 28.5 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo by author

This technique enables the production of an identical twin of any work of art, without the loss of any physical characteristics (e.g. impasto, craquelure) (fig.1). In addition, 3D printing’s digital model can be manipulated endlessly and supplemented with scientific and material-technical knowledge about the work of art, for example, information about changes in the work’s pigments or topography.3 Furthermore, projects like the Next Rembrandt (2016) show that applying machine learning and artificial intelligence could make it possible to generate an entirely new work in the style of a well-known artist. This way, the process of physical reproduction has become easier, cheaper, more accurate, versatile and less time-consuming in comparison to the creation of copies by hand, opening up endless possibilities for our interpretation of art.

Because of the technology’s accuracy and flexibility, 3D printing has already been explored in some disciplines within the art historical field. The possibility to create infinite one-on-one reproductions of fragile objects makes it interesting for research and education purposes.4 Furthermore, the 3D data helps research the surface materials of a work of art and reconstruct the changes it has gone through over time, making it an interesting technology for conservation purposes as well.5 The reproduction of renaissance painter Paolo Veronese’s (1528-1588) Wedding at Cana (1562-1563) in Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice – the original of which hangs opposite Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa (1503) in the Louvre in Paris – even restored the original context the work was made for (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. 3D print of Paolo Veronese, <em>Wedding at Cana</em>, 1562-1563, oil on canvas, 6.77 x 9.94 m. Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice<br>Photo by author, 3D print by Factum Foundation

Fig. 2. 3D print of Paolo Veronese, Wedding at Cana, 1562-1563, oil on canvas, 6.77 x 9.94 m. Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice
Photo by author, 3D print by Factum Foundation

In the case of exhibition purposes, however, (Dutch) museums have been hesitant towards reproductions, particularly 3D prints. In a world of high-quality replicas, “fake news” and counterfeits, the museum is expected to show “the real (object)”.6 Since the “magic” of art is encapsulated within its unique materials, why would anyone go to a museum to see the anti-authentic, synthetic 3D print?

Displaying the anti-authentic

As paradoxical as it may seem, the interviews I conducted with both museum professionals (e.g. museum directors, curators, conservators) and non-specialists (visitors), revealed the importance of 3D printing for their experience of the original.7 One curator emphasized that we must not forget that reproductions have always been vital for understanding art, curatorial practices and education; hence they have always been part of (museum) collections. Without the plaster cast collection of the Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam, the reproductions of dinosaur skeletons in natural history museums, or the polychrome copies of the nowadays monochrome Greek statues in the Acropolis Museum, Athens, we would not be able to study these objects or know more about the lost originals they were derived from (fig. 3).

Then, when is displaying a reproduction in a museum context acceptable? Ironically, although there is a fear of being deceived, exact visual and physical similarity to the original is considered crucial.8 In this sense, the interviewees considered 3D printing the most life-like reproduction method. Furthermore, the fact that 3D prints are physical reproductions is of great advantage, especially in crowded museums, because they do not require much explanation on how they should be used or interpreted, in contrast to digital screens, AR and VR applications, making them user-friendly. Moreover, the visitors and curators saw the value of 3D printing in the fact that they can display something the original cannot. For instance, a painting by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) can be printed without discoloration or flattened impasto as if it had just come out of his studio (fig. 4). The 3D prints at the Mauritshuis’ Facelifts & Makeovers exhibition (2022) demonstrated a work of art’s metamorphosis due to restoration treatments. The La Riscoperta di un Capolavoro (2020-2021) exhibition at Palazzo Fava, Bologna showed that only printing the surface makes it possible to understand the techniques used by artists to create relief and depth without the distraction of color.9

Fig. 5. 10 times enlarged 3D printed eye of Johannes Vermeer’s <em>Girl with a Pearl Earring</em>, 1665, oil on canvas, 44 x 39 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo by author

Fig. 5. 10 times enlarged 3D printed eye of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, oil on canvas, 44 x 39 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo by author

Additionally, in a 3D print aspects of a work can be magnified and physicalized. For example, enlarging the eye of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring makes it possible to understand the artist’s technique and the material changes the work has been through (e.g. the cracks on the surface become clearly visible) (fig. 5). Moreover, the successful Hoy toca el Prado exhibition at Museo del Prado in Madrid (2015-ongoing) and the permanent Feeling Van Gogh exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam use 3D prints to let visitors explore their collection through touch, adding a haptic quality to the work. By enhancing a portrait’s contours or impasto, the accessibility of art can be increased, because now also visually impaired people and children can better understand the works of art.

Furthermore, the 3D print of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman (1656) (Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam) displayed at Fondazione Prada’s Human Brains exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 shows that a 3D printed facsimile can replace an original when it is absent because it cannot travel or is not available. Since the gallery does not own a permanent collection, it also displayed a 3D printed copy of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (1501-1505, Museo del Prado, Madrid) and many other copies as a way to create a more sustainable and less costly exhibition (figs. 6 & 7).10 The curators argued that to them, the story the exhibition tells is more important than showing original works of art. Furthermore, by using 3D prints, it was possible to display these two masterpieces in the same space for the first time, without a loss of their physical qualities. To safeguard the authenticity of the work of art, the curators always clearly indicated when a facsimile was being used and why it was displayed. In this case, the vast majority of the visitors did not mind the fact that the originals could not be displayed and considered the 3D prints to be a crucial part of the exhibition. Seeing such a high-quality reproduction and knowing why the originals could not be there made them appreciate the real work even more.11 To them, the reproductions created a unique experience and narrative in a different context.12 This, subsequently, can open up a way for museums to rethink the repatriation or decolonization of artifacts to their communities of origin for museums can become less attached to the originals. The Tlingit prints in the Smithsonian, Washington DC, are a great example in which creating high-quality 3D prints helped rethink the role of objects and the museum in different societies.13

In conclusion, these examples show that replicas should never be presented instead of another original if the latter is available. Yet, the discussion of authenticity versus 3D reproduction is not black and white. A 3D print can add to the experience of the original object, which enables new experiences and narratives to take place both inside and outside the museum – of course it should always be indicated a copy is used, and why. Also, as the role of museums is to collect, display and communicate about objects that are significant for society, reproductions are crucial for ensuring the preservation of works of art. After all, what good is the original if the representation to which we are so attached can no longer be experienced? Important to always keep in mind is the fact that reproductions both extend a work’s history and connection with the public but, at the same time, freeze its appearance and might imprint a specific significance for generations to come. Therefore, consider what the 3D print communicates and why it might impact the perception of a work of art in the future.

Of course, a 3D print can and will never replace the original, but it could provide a best-of-both-worlds scenario. By eliminating the need to make compromises because every material aspect of the work of art can be reproduced, 3D printing is important to the desire to keep in touch with the physical. At the same time, it can fulfill the public’s need for a more multifaceted story of a specific work of art in a sustainable fashion.

Liselore Tissen is a PhD candidate at Leiden University and Delft University of Technology. Her research focuses on the significance of 3D printing for art research, the conservation & presentation of paintings. On Tuesday 29 November 2022 she will host a seminar on this topic at Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. More information is available here.



1 Walter Benjamin and J. A. Underwood, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, 2008.

2 L.N.M. Tissen, “Authenticity and Meaningful Futures for Museums: The Role of 3D Printing,” in Reinventing Boundaries of Crisis, Journal of the LUCAS Graduate Conference 9 (Leiden: Leiden University, 2021), pp. 94–122.

3 For a more detailed description of the 3D printing process, see; L.N.M. Tissen, “Authenticity vs 3D Reproduction,” Arts in Society. Academic Rhapsodies, 2020, pp. 21-26.

4 Moritz Neumüller et al., “3D Printing for Cultural Heritage: Preservation, Accessibility, Research and Education,” n.d., 16.

5 L.N.M. Tissen et al., “Using 3D Scanning to Support Conservation Treatments for Paintings,” Materials Science and Engineering 949 (2020): 9.

6 E. Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Museum Meanings (Taylor & Francis, 2020), pp. 1-20; Sharon Macdonald et al., The International Handbooks of Museum Studies (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015); S. Dudley, Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations (Taylor & Francis, 2013), pp.1-20.

7 L.N.M. Tissen, “Indistinguishable Likeness: 3D Replication as a Conservation Strategy and the Moral and Ethical Discussions on Our Perception of Art” (Leiden, Leiden University, 2018); L.N.M. Tissen, U.S. Malik, and A.P.O.S. Vermeeren, “3D Reproductions of Cultural Heritage Artefacts: Evaluation of Significance and Experience,” Studies in Digital Heritage 4, no. 1 (2021); L.N.M. Tissen and M. van Veldhuizen, “Picture-Perfect – The Perception and Applicability of Facsimiles in Museums,” in Art & Perception (Leiden: Brill, 2022), under review.

8 Ibidem

9 Factum Foundation, “The Materiality of the Aura. New Technologies for Preservation,” n.d., (accessed 12 October 2022)

10 L.N.M. Tissen and S. Frequin, “Laten we onze obsessie met het unieke kunstwerk loslaten,” NRC, 12 April 2022.

11 L.N.M. Tissen, “3D-reproducties zijn geen gevaar voor de kunsten, maar kunnen die juist redden,” Het Parool, 16 June 2022.

12 This is not the only example of a valued reproduction which is being displayed instead of an original. The Night Watch on Tour (since 2020 – ongoing) shows the success of using high-quality reproductions outside of the museum’s walls; Ramdjan, “Zo verlagen Amsterdamse musea (letterlijk) de drempels,” Het Parool, 12 October 2022; Mascini, “Rijksmuseum brengt de Nachtwacht naar Hilversum. Bewoners Egelantier kijken hun ogen uit: ’De echte viel wat tegen, deze is prachtig’,” Noordhollands Dagblad, 7 September 2022.

13 E.R. Hollinger, et al. “Tlingit-Smithsonian collaborations with 3D digitization of cultural objects.” Museum Anthropology Review 7 (2013): 201-253; Smithsonian, “Smithsonian Uses 3D Tech to Restore a Broken Sacred Object for Tlingit Indians”, 2019, (accessed 11 October 2022).