Tuesday, 15 September 2015




Me being scanned using the Skanect software. Photo Credit: Roger Orvis

If you’d asked me a couple years back about who could create a 3D scan, I would have thought that only a handful of individuals or organizations could have afforded the technology. But last year I encountered Skanect, which since its release in January 2013 has allowed people use a XBox Kinect sensor to create 3D models. Since Skanect is free for non-commercial use and the sensors themselves retail for around $110 new with many cheaper used versions on the market, the technology is surprisingly economical. Additionally, the Toronto Public Library’s three Digital Innovation Hubs have 3D scanners, making the technology even more attainable to residents of the city.

Bust of a Female Deity captured by David Neff as part of the Met MakerBot Hackathon. Source.

Thingiverse is a platform where many models are shared mostly with the intention that they will be 3D printed. Many people within the community, however, attach personal stories to the objects and give background information on why they were made or scanned. These objects can exist side by side with art contained in galleries such as this Bust of a Female Deity from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I confess that my scan is technically not a selfie; I enlisted my mom’s help to capture my shape. But when dreaming up a title for this piece, I wanted to emphasize the role of the self in user generated scans. These scans are a way to document and connect to material culture across vast geographies. The ability of publics to share the stories invested in objects offers possibilities for fostering social museological approaches.

Screenshot of the finished 3D model of me. Photo Credit: Orvis Starkweather.

The elimination of gatekeepers allows different sorts of collections to be built. Digitized facsimiles allow items that are not museum collection quality to have a public life. Museums have traditionally been selective in which types of bodies are included in their content, but self-scanning expands who is allowed to be represented and how. Additionally, scattered content creation locations can disrupt notions of the superiority of the center over periphery regions.

When encountering an exhibition, I often ask myself “Who does this museum serve? Who is excluded? Where does the balance of power lie between the creators of an exhibition and the source communities represented?” While certainly not a panacea to such complex issues, self-generated 3-D scans are one tool out of many that can be used to chip away unequal systems. They also come with their own set of limitations which should be carefully considered and complicated. Technologies, even affordable ones, always establish boundaries over who can access them.


  1. If any of you ever want to try out full-body scanning on a rotating turntable that supports up to 300 lbs, you're all welcome to come by the Critical Making Lab's open lab hours on Friday mornings (~9:30ish to 11:30ish, next door in the Semaphore Research Cluster).
    We've got lots of different scanning tools, and I'm always happy to give people an introduction...

    1. That sounds fantastic, thank you Gabby. I think Orvis and I will have to come for a visit very soon!

    2. Gbby, thanks for passing along that great tip! As a first year master of museum candidate, I'm certainly still learning about all the great opportunities on campus. I can't wait to check out the Semaphore Research Cluster.

  2. In terms of museums, it would be nice if they have 3d scans/digitization of their objects which you can order by request, and which can be then 3d printed on a smaller scale for a fee at the gift shop. I would love to have a plastic replica of my favorite armor or statue, or fossil readily available and taken right to my home. Also a good way for the museum to make money, for I believe obtaining a copy of your favorite artifact should be in demand. What's stopping them from making more replicas of that Indian deity, to be sold?

    1. That is a great point; made-to-order 3D prints could be quite lucrative for cultural institutions. Personally, I'm a bit generous in my timeline of when 3D printed items will make their way into gift shops. I suspect many institutions want time to evaluate the different delivery models and ensure a smooth transition. Some museums have made small parts of their collection available for free download. You could check out this Mashable article on 3D scans from the British Museum if you're interested: http://mashable.com/2014/10/31/british-museum-3d-printing-sketchfab/#Ub_2f.vim8kP.

  3. Cool. I'll read this tomorrow.

  4. Ha, some commenter say that Greece should get a printed copy of the Elgin Marbles. Imagine museums trading high-quality reproductions, which in the past had to be done with plaster copies.