The Met Invites Artists to 3-D Print Its Collection, and Art History Will Never be the Same

"Reclining Todd" by Todd Blatt
(Courtesy Thingiverse)

NEW YORK — Something’s amiss in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum. Antonio Canova’s “Reclining Naiad” (1819-24) has been fractured into polygons, its subtle curves broken out into sharp angles. The Northern Qi Dynasty guardian lion from the sixth century now has a mustache. The quiet gaze of Ippolito Buzio’s portrait bust of Luisa Deti (1562-1634) has been replaced with an angry scream. These aberrations aren’t Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-style vandalism; rather, the museum’s collection has been hacked by a gang of technology artists and designers armed with three-dimensional scanning software and the Makerbot 3D printer.

The museum hosted the “Met 3-D” hackathon (picture a bunch of programmers locked in a room with the purpose of creating something cool) earlier this month, giving a gang of technologists including Makerbot founder Bre Pettis, artist Marius Watz, designer Anney Fresh, and professor Liz Arum free reign of the galleries. The crew used a combination of photography and software to create three-dimensional models of collection objects that piqued their interest, and then uploaded the models to Thingiverse, a Makerbot Web site that collects 3D printing schematics and distributes them free for public use.


The sudden abundance of three-dimensional models means that artists can now digitally remix the works of art in the Met’s collection, adding that mustache to the guardian lion or swapping in their own face for the “Reclining Naiad,” as Todd Blatt did. Once they have mashed up the works virtually, the creators can then print out the brand-new hybrid objects using Makerbot’s 3D printers.

The hackathon’s results are provocative and funny, but the implications of the Met event are no joke. The museum is making some of the most important objects in art history open source, allowing more people to experience them and interact with them than ever before. If you’re too far away to get to the Metropolitan in person, it’s now possible to bring the art to you, no loan agreements needed. Feel like touching the work? Just print one out, and handle it to your heart’s content.

It brings up the same issue that Robert Norton, CEO of the digital art platform s[edition], does in a Wired UK op-ed when he questions why museums don’t release high-resolution digital reproductions of works that are already in the public domain. Though the files published through the Makerbot hackathon aren’t as high-resolution as they could be, they certainly are a step in the revolutionary direction of increased public access. In the age of the Internet and technologies like 3D printing, even the most traditional art museums need not be walled gardens.

Click on the slide show for a selection of objects created by the Met 3-D hackathon artists.