The Printed Museum: 3D printings impact on museum audience, policy and practice.


What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the process of transforming 3D computer models into physical objects. This process is usually done by successively depositing thin layers of molten material to form a three dimensional object. It is currently possible to 3D print in a range of different materials including plastic, wax, metal and ceramic.

My Research

This research examines the impact 3D printing has on different museums. It examines regional, national and international museums to gain an understanding of how and why 3D printing affects a museum, its policies and audiences. A particular focus is on the visual and physical properties of 3D printed museum objects and how they affect the formulation of meaning.

At present both national and university museums are using 3D printing in research and audience engagements. However, it is currently unclear how people learn from this these objects which, in turn affects the museum experience and formulation of object based meaning. A 3D printed museum object is visually different from the original museum object, requires a digital model to print from, and is often printed in contemporary materials such as plastic. This generates a visual disconnection between the 3D printed object, its source artefact and digital scan, which, combined with a museums reputation as a centre for historical learning, makes the integration of 3D printing into museum practice an important and timely area of research.

This research adopts an experimental approach, positioning 3D printed museum objects at the centre of this study. It will also take into account the digital model of the museum object, as it is an intrinsic part of the 3D printing process and is often combined with 3D printing to support object research and audience engagements.  As an initial means of investigation this research will undertake a pilot study, scanning and printing museum objects in a range of different materials. The results of this will inform further investigations held in a regional, national and international museum. These further investigations will form the main part of this research and comprise of task-based interviews and workshops with museum staff and professionals. 3D printed museum objects and their scans will be used throughout the interviews and workshops as a way of provoking and generating thoughts around the use, materiality and impact of 3D printed objects within museums.

Why is this research important?

3D printing has only recently been integrated into the cultural sector and as such very little is known about how it effects museums on a practical and theoretical level. There has been no practical or academic study which examines how 3D printing effects museum research, learning or curatorial practice. This is an important issue, and one this research will attempt to solve, especially given the media interest and support from funding bodies that 3D printing in museums in currently receiving.

Furthermore by undertaking a comparative study of how 3D printing impacts on a regional, national, and international museum, this research will provide a cross-cultural cross-institutional analysis of policy, perception and environmental developments that could benefit UK museum practice and vice versa. This will provide a platform for future research and audience engagements with 3D printed museum objects to take place.


Amelia Knowlson is a PhD researcher, freelance curator and lover replicating museum objects.

She completed her MA studies at Newcastle University during which she won the Day Star award for outstanding studentship. Upon graduating she was employed on the AHRC project ‘Co-Curate’ where she engaged communities and museums with 3D capture and print technology. Amelia has built a strong reputation of working with museums where, as a freelance curator she has led workshops and curated exhibitions using 3D print and capture technology. She has worked with The Laing Art Gallery, The Centre for Life and The Great North Museum.  For Amelia, 3D printing is a vital tool for future engagements within museums and this belief has influenced all aspects of her academic and practical work. She is currently in receipt of catalyst funding to co-develop sensory interactives with the Royal Society of the Blind.


Amelia has presented her work national conferences including the 2015 Provocative Plastics held at The Art University at Bournemouth, where her work appears as part of the conferences publication and the 2015 Social History Conference hosted by Museums Sheffield.

She is supervised by Dr Becky Shaw at Sheffield Hallam University and co-supervised by Dr Andrew Wilson at Bradford University and Nick Dulake from Sheffield Hallam’s Design Futures.