New Horizons

Today I had the opportunity to learn more about a stunning new horizon in the museum exhibition field. You may have heard a thing or two about 3-D printing technology. Personally, I know little about the scientific details, so best consult father Google for more information in that regard, but I was introduced to a very exciting concept. Although its likely that stories about self-made weapons and near-science fiction soundbytes dominate folks’ news feeds on this topic, there’s an application of interest to the educator for these amazingly accurate “print-outs” of three-dimensional items, and my colleagues at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, are at the front of the pack with this new concept.

Check out photos from the trip here.

For those who still may be a bit in the dark on 3-D technology, let me provide a brief explanation. Utilizing a hand-held or (usually) stationary mount, a three dimensional scanner will use laser or light technology to scan an item, similar to what happens with a conventional scammer at the office. Only this time, the beams from the scanner record extremely precise information from the item being scanned. Each beam bounces of every surface of the object being scanned, so that when you’re done scanning, you’re left with a massive computer file that documents every exterior detail of the item. For example, think about a pencil–the scan would produce a file that would allow you to “print” a copy of the pencil. It wouldn’t function of course, but you’d have an amazing copy of it for your pencil museum.

Want to know how precise it is? Experts in Poland have developed technology that’s accurate to a stunning 0.2 nanometers (nm) That means that when the item in scanned, data is recorded for each and every 0.2-nm dot, which is pretty impressive when you recall that a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Just to further put that in perspective, the diameter of a helium atom is about 0.1 nm, and a ribosome is about 20 nm. So believe it or not, the scan of that pencil will reveal the shallow teeth marks on the surface, the accumulated lead deposits on the eraser, the grain of the bare wood in the tip, and you’ll be able to see just how good your pencil sharpener is by looking at the cut marks on the lead tip. And what’s great about “printing” is, that unlike traditional machining methods that remove material from a piece of stock material, the new creations are added upon, eliminating any complex machining difficulties.

So what does this mean for the museum world?  The collections department here at Auschwitz is leading the charge in this new innovation by performing 3-D scans of several small items, which allows for the most delicate and fragile traces of memory to be documented with a degree of precision never before available for museums.

It’s an extraordinary tool for preservationists working with deteriorating items. Moreover, this technology opens up new educational avenues for those handicapped by blindness–it is now possible that the most compelling elements of the Auschwitz experience; the physical evidence, may be felt, understood, known, by those who can’t see.

Truly inspiring.