Future heritage: rapid prototyping or rapid decay?

In a new review published today in Heritage Science, researchers from UCL's Institute for Sustainable Heritage look at the challenge of conserving the materials of the future, in this case plastics produced through 3D printing, from degradation. In this Guest Post, author Carolien Coon tells us what makes this paper special.

At UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH), heritage scientists are looking ahead and teaming up with artists to ensure that digitally born art will survive. While our society is going through a period of rapid development with digital technologies, 3D printed pieces could become the relics of our time. So we would hope. However, 3D printing technology was designed for rapid prototypes and not meant to last, such objects are just as or even more unstable than 20th Century plastic objects.

Three-dimensional artwork has been available for millennia via sculptures. Only in recent years has it now become possible to generate an artist’s 3D creation at home or in an office using a 3D printer; in addition it is possible to represent such material in webpages. With electronic books being the future of publishing, such images can now be incorporated into published articles. This work takes advantage of modern technology to represent such artwork, something in the realms of science fiction a generation ago.”


Richard Brereton
Editor-in-Chief
Heritage Science

In conservation we have come to realise that preserving the materials of the ‘future’ poses an even greater challenge than preserving those of the old. While the conservation of wood and stone has been very well researched, the conservation of modern materials has been less so. This review indicates that some of the plastics used in 3D printing are particularly unstable and we are just beginning to understand their degradation mechanisms.

Pre-empting a sad fate for 3D printed plastics, researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage and the V&A plan to start the conservation process at the point of manufacture through knowledge exchange and collaborations between artists, conservators and scientists. Initiated during the 2013 UK AHRC-funded project ‘Design with Heritage,’ scientists teamed up with artists documenting the lifetime of a digitally-born artwork from conception to physical realization and eventual degradation. In addition, a survey and interviews with 54 artists and designers using 3D printing was conducted to identify conservation issues related to 3D printed artworks.

This exchange revealed important information about the working practices of the artists and designers, archival preferences, common materials in use and artists’ attitudes to authenticity and replication, allowing for informed choices by the custodians of digital art.

Cauldron” produced with the most common RP technologies before (top row) and after (bottom row) photodegradation.
“Out of the Cauldron” by Tom Lomax produced with the most common RP technologies before (top row) and after (bottom row) exposure to light for a few weeks.
Coon et al.

As many as 81% of the artists noticed a change in the physical appearance of their pieces over a short period of time, but interestingly 84% indicated that they would consider replication should their work be damaged in the future. In contrast, the survey also revealed that simply reprinting artworks might not be an answer due to post-processing of pieces after printing, which is not replicable. This highlights the need for further research into the long term degradation of the new materials designed for 3D printing and additive manufacturing, and opens a new area of research in heritage science.

To have an actual artwork made available through a science publication might well be a first.”


Matija Strlic
Deputy Director
UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage.

The results of the project and a review of the most commonly used technologies and degradation processes of materials found in literature from industry are described in the paper “Preserving Rapid Prototypes: A Review” published today in Heritage Science. The paper also includes open access to the artwork “Out of the Cauldron” by the artist Tom Lomax to be downloaded and printed for use in future digital conservation research or even just for pure art appreciation.

“We took on the challenge of preserving the future and in this spirit produced a truly unusual publication I believe. To have an actual artwork made available through a science publication might well be a first,” enthused Professor Matija Strlic, Deputy Director of UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage.

… I came to realize the importance of just how fast-changing new technology is impacting fine art/design and the importance of having conservation structures readily in place, ghosting technology as it develops…”


Tom Lomax
Digital Artist

With the changing nature of art production museums and artists rely more and more on each other to preserve contemporary art and design pieces. By raising awareness of preservation issues, this project illustrates the need and potential benefits of such collaboration not only to custodians of digital art but also to their creators. Tom Lomax, digital artist describes the value of  a collaborative approach when conserving contemporary art: “By the completion of the project I came to realize the importance of just how fast-changing new technology is impacting fine art/design and the importance of having conservation structures readily in place, ghosting technology as it develops, and artist and designers ready to employ it, rather them being brought in retrospectively. The outcomes of this research can be of benefit to both practitioners and academics alike, especially if underpinned by their collaboration being integral to the structure at an early stage.”

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