Yes We Can. But Should We? (Cultural Heritage Edition)

by brandontlocke

Over the last few days, a post entitled “Yes We Can. But Should We? The unintended consequences of the maker movement” has been circulating around my own filter bubble. I’d recommend reading it – it’s a nice critique of the disruption mythology as it surrounds the maker (and specifically the 3D printer) movement – but it actually has little to do with my interests here.

I’ve recently begun working in the History Department at Michigan State University as Director of LEADR, the Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research. The lab is an incredible space for students to learn more about digital research techniques in the social sciences and humanities, and it’s well stocked with most any kind of equipment students would need to conduct their own research and create digital projects. Of course, every time a student or faculty member comes into LEADR I get the same response with one item in particular:


“So, what are you going to do with THAT thing?”

I don’t blame them, I asked the same thing when I first heard about humanities labs at Western and UVic getting 3D printers. If it’s a student that asks, my first response is usually, “I don’t know….you tell me?” But I generally follow through by describing critical making and I tell them about UVic’s Early Wearables Kits and Devon Elliot’s work on magic. I always follow it up by telling them about all of the museums that are creating and making available digital scans of their objects. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking of another pedagogical process that could take advantage of the use (or disuse) of 3D printers.

A quick thought experiment:

We all know that it would be wrong to grab an object from a museum display, throw it on the ground, and stomp on it. To start with the obvious, it’s likely one-of-a-kind or extremely rare and worthy of some protection, and it’s not yours to destroy. But are there other reasons? For example, if you were to cause harm to a Killer Whale Hat, a sacred object that once belonged to the leader of the Tlingit Dakl’aweidí clan of Alaska, this would also be an act of disrespect and aggression toward the Tlingit Dakl’aweidí people. So, you could eliminate the first two issues by printing a replica of the Killer Whale Hat (3D plugin may be needed). But then what? I feel that it’s abundantly clear that any desecration of it would still be a violation of this third issue. However, a closer examination of customs surrounding sacred or significant objects may reveal, or at least invite discussion of the possibility, that this meaning is really only attached to the original object.

So, the act of printing (or scanning!) an object should be preceded by a discussion of what replication of a cultural heritage object actually means, in addition to a discussion of how the object should be treated if it is printed. Obviously, there are much more nuanced decisions to be made than whether or not it’s appropriate to stomp on something. By discussing this replication process, students would not only be forced to investigate and analyze an object’s role within a culture and a society, but also think more critically about what particular traits make the object significant and meaningful. I would love to hear from anyone who has conducted studies or taught about the materiality of cultural heritage objects – I would love to bring this aspect into the classroom in as thoughtful and productive a manner as I can.

On the flipside, if you’d like your dog to have a dolphin skull fossil as a chew toy, you have my blessing.