The Bartlett


3D printed heritage

Leading scientists and artists are teaming up to research how modern art can best be preserved for future generations.

3D printed objects - Out of the Cauldron by Tom Lomax

Much is known about how to conserve traditional art – typically made of natural materials like wood and stone – but little is known about the preservation of contemporary art, which is increasingly digital and made from new materials. The UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH) is part of a landmark Nanorestart project, funded by EU Horizon 2020, that could change that. 

In an unusual step, a modern artwork was produced specifically for the purpose of scientific experimentation. Engineer-turned-artist Tom Lomax designed Out of the Cauldron (see opposite page) – an intricate piece of digital alchemy that pushes the current limits of 3D printing – as part of a knowledge exchange project between the Victoria & Albert Museum and ISH called Design with Heritage. Lomax made the work freely downloadable, so that it could be reproduced in a variety of materials and be used as a research case study anywhere in the world.   

Researchers at the ISH, led by Carolien Coon, subjected the artwork to accelerated testing, discovering that many 3D-printing technologies use materials that degrade particularly rapidly. This is a potentially ominous sign for today’s contemporary art, much of which is produced using 3D-printers and other rapid prototyping methods. The results were published in Preserving Rapid Prototypes: A Review, and include open access to Lomax’s artwork. 

“Art is being transformed by fast-changing new technologies, so it is vital to pre-empt conservation issues, rather than react to them,” says Coon. “This research project will benefit both artists and academics alike – but ultimately it is in the best interests  of the public that art and science combine to preserve works.” 

The work of Coon and others in the  Nanorestart project team, will provide a pool of data to help develop new methods of conservation, such as a ‘sunblock’-type coating to protect artworks from light degradation. “As an artist I previously had little idea of the conservation threat facing contemporary art – preferring to leave these issues for conservators and to focus on the creative process,” says Lomax. “But while working on this project with UCL I began to realise that artists themselves have a crucial role to play.” 

Image: Out of the Cauldron by Tom Lomax