As good as the real thing? 3D models and representations

There is a certain thrill that comes with experiencing a real piece of history in a museum or library. The ability to see and sometimes interact with an object that is directly linked to the past provides a greater understanding than simply reading the narrative from a book. When it is not possible for a cultural institution to provide public access to artefacts they can now present 3D models or 3D representations of these artefacts. But do these representations provide the same connection as the authentic artefact? Are they as good as the real thing?

There are many advantages to 3D models and representations. Museums and other cultural institutions can make use of online 3D representations to showcase the artefacts that they have in exhibitions. These representations can be used to encourage visitors to visit the exhibitions to see the original artefact. If the real artefact cannot be put on show in the museum, a 3D model can be the next best thing. Digital representations can also be used to preserve the past where it may be difficult or even impossible to preserve the original. The use of digitised objects allows greater opportunity for public engagement with the past (Butcher, et al. 12). The use of these digitised objects is also a great asset to the education sector to enhance learning in schools. Children today are more comfortable with technology due to being surrounded by technology at home. The term ‘digital native’ may be somewhat far-fetched but these children are growing up in an age where technology is everywhere. Therefore, it only makes sense to bring this new technology into the classroom.

Figure 1: Student examining a 3D model and 3D virtual representation of a fossil (Butcher, et al. 13).

A case study was undertaken by researchers in a school in Utah where they found that the students engaged incredibly well with the digital objects; the 3D models and 3D representations on tablets (Butcher, et al. 13). However the concept of digitised objects enhancing learning in the classroom was not discussed in the report. It makes sense that children would be fascinated by new objects that they have not been exposed to before. It is possible that access to such digital materials would enhance learning but there are no studies to back this up. A similar study could be undertaken but perhaps with a goal to gauge how digitised objects may enhance learning in the classroom. With this information, it would then be clearer to see if indeed digitised objects do encourage more in depth learning and a greater understanding of the past.

While having a 3D representation of an artefact is a great benefit to a museum, library or school, it is not the same as the original. Stuart Jeffrey talks about this idea of “digital aura” and how this “aura” can change the way an object is received by the public (Jeffrey, 145). But how can an aura be measured? The meaning or connection a person receives from one object may not be the same as another. Is the digital representation a piece of creative work or simply a copy? I would argue that it depends who is interacting with the object; it is a personal preference. Some may be content with an accurate copy, being able to touch, examine and interact with the object. Others may prefer to experience the original object behind a glass in a museum. Personal or even societal preference is not something that can be easily gauged, it changes over time. Digitised objects are still a relatively new phenomenon and it may take the public some time to fully engage with the possibilities.

I believe that, in some contexts. digital representations are as good as the real artefact. They offer opportunities for further learning and engagement with the past. It may not be the same as interacting with the true artefact but it is certainly the next best thing.


Butcher, Kirsten, Madlyn Runburg, Michelle Hudson, “Using digitized objects to promote critical thinking and engagement in classrooms”, Library Hi Tech News, vol. 34, no. 7, 2017, pp. 12-15, Accessed 31st Oct. 2017.

Jeffrey, Stuart, “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation”, Open Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 144-152, Accessed 31st Oct. 2017.

Latour, Bruno, Adam, Lowe, “The Migration of the Aura or How to explore the original through its facsimiles”, Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, 2010, pp. 275-297, Accessed 31st Oct. 2017.   

Copyright in a Technological World: 3D Scanning

In the technological age that we live in, new technologies are used in all walks of life. Many people have become seduced by all this new technology and are afraid of being left behind if they do not keep up with the newest gadgets and updates (Huggett, J 82).  Professions such as archaeology have made use of these technological advancements to enhance their research. With these new developments in what Huggett describes as “a microcomputer revolution” (81), archaeologists have new tools at their disposal that can offer them many new perspectives on their work. However with these new developments, especially in the area of 3D printing, there are questions being raised surrounding the copyrighting of 3D scans and models.

A 3D scan could be compared to a 2D image or photograph. The researcher making the model has not created the original artefact just as a photographer may not have created the scene but merely captured it. However, if the photograph was deemed to be a creative work rather than simply documenting a scene, it could be eligible to be copyrighted (Weinberg, Michael 4). In the case of a 3D scan it is even more complex. There must be an author to grant the copyright to but if the 3D scan is created in a team setting, it is unclear who the author is (Weinberg 4). If some photographs can be considered a result of a creative process then can the same be applied to a 3D scan? The work of Sophie Kahn is deemed eligible for copyright because it is a creative representation rather than a documentation of the sculptures she scans (Weinberg 10). However, if someone else makes a replica scan of the same sculpture it is not eligible to be copyrighted.

For 3D scans that are not eligible for copyright, contracts and licenses are used by public museums for public domain cultural works and their 3D replicas (Cronin, Charles Patrick Desmond 11). These contracts can give the museums control over the artefacts in both a conservation and commercial sense. The items themselves may not be copyrighted, but the cultural institutions have certain legal rights regarding them. There is an argument here concerning the commercialisation of cultural heritage artefacts that should be made available to the public. Does 3D scanning and printing not make it easier for audiences to create and own personal replicas of historical artefacts? If this is so, then the objects should not be protected by a copyright in order to allow the public full access to them.

Both Weinberg and Cronin raise the issue of the creativity surrounding 3D scanning and the making of 3D models. The idea that the original artefact is the creative piece and the 3D scan is used simply to document it omits any element of creative process in the making of the scan. In order to be granted copyright, the item must be deemed creative and these replicas of artefacts are not considered creative works. This raises the question of how to determine if something is creative or not and who has the right the decide this.

“No matter how hard, work alone does not get you copyright protection” (Weinberg 3). The issues around copyright and 3D scans comes down to creativity and not the time and care taken to create the scans and models. Perhaps there is room for development and, in the future, more 3D scans may meet the criteria to be granted copyright. As of now however, you’re not likely to obtain copyright for your 3D scans of historical artefacts any time soon.



Cronin, Charles Patrick Desmond. “Possession Is 99% of the Law: 3D Printing, Public Domain Cultural Artifacts & Copyright.” SSRN, 15 Feb. 2016, Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

Huggett, J. “Archaeology and the New Technological Fetishism.” Archeologia e Calcolatori XV, 2004, pp. 81-92., Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

Weinberg, Michael. “3D Scanning: A World Without Copyright.” Shapeways, May 2016, pp. 1-16., Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.