Experiencing heritage through digital fabrication technologies

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


This paper will explore the opportunities brought by digital fabrication technologies in order to support audiences to experience and creatively use cultural heritage content. Digital fabrication technologies take advantage of 3-dimensional information of physical artefacts, including their shape and texture, in order to re-produce or produce alternative representations of the artefacts. These technologies are revolutionising the way audiences access and experience cultural content as affordable technologies are increasingly becoming available to the general public. Thus, it is expected that these technologies will facilitate accessibility to artefacts, promote the idea of openness for the cultural institution and contribute to the ‘democratisation’ of cultural heritage.

Digital fabrication technologies are creating a revolution in ‘making things’ by changing the way products are designed, fabricated and delivered to the user. These technologies include design and validation tools, as well as manufacturing technologies, such as Additive Manufacturing (AM), Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) and laser cutting machining, to mention the most widespread technologies. The growth in this sector is evidenced by the increase in sales, technological advances, new applications and the expiration of key patents in particular for the AM technologies. Hence, this sector is forecasted to continue to grow in the next years as advances in materials and machines are assimilated by the market.

This paper will discuss state of the art of functional fabrication technologies for creative purposes as well as the opportunities that they offer to engage audiences with cultural heritage content. The process of reproducing heritage content by a mixture of tools and graphical techniques will be examined. Proposed tools and techniques aim to make available expert knowledge, typically available only to experts, to support the design of an object by cultural heritage professionals, amateurs and non-experts. This direction is supported by the increased access to fabrication technologies in the ‘Maker Movement’ and the availability of FabLabs and other similar initiatives all over the word.

Enabling a variety of audiences to design and manufacture complex physical objects based requires providing support in various processes. These processes include: 1) the creative conception of an object; 2) the definition of the 3D geometry, its appearance (e.g. colour or texture) and material properties; 3) the specification and validation of the design for manufacturing; 4) the manufacturing and post-processing of the object.

In addition, digital fabrication technologies offer opportunities to support the cost-effective, customisable and on-demand reproduction of objects using cultural heritage digital content. In this research, we focus mainly on enabling creative uses in archaeology, arts and architecture. Different examples will be discussed, including the reproduction of heritage artefacts which are fragile or difficult to access and 2) the production of architectural ornamental decoration not only to support the conservation of historic built environments but also to communicate their aesthetics and artistic values.

Public engagement, understanding and involvement have always been demanding fields of work for cultural heritage (CH) organisations. Heritage professionals were and still are, in many cases, focusing on ‘internal’ processes of collection management (e.g. documentation and conservation) without demonstrating an obvious external contribution in terms of communicating their possessions to the society they belong to. This attitude has changed over the last decades, as CH organisations have become aware of their social purpose and put emphasis on community needs. Such a change reflects the shift in the CH domain, according to the ‘new museology’ principles. Therefore, museums and CH organisations gradually acquire a character that is more related to services than to mastery.

The idea of a ‘general audience’ for museums/CH institutions has been based on the misbelief that a general (and average) audience exists and has influenced -and still does- the way that exhibitions or interactions (physical and digital) are built within a CH organisation. In reality, CH institutions are places where different interpretative communities meet. These communities can be categorised/perceived in relation to the interpretation process; share common frameworks of intellectual skills and interpretive repertoires; are fluid as their members could belong to many communities at a time. Even though it might be difficult to identify or ‘grasp’ them, the concept of different interpretative communities and consequently the selection of ‘target audiences’ has helped CH institutions to form their strategies and plan their activities.

This research will argue that we have only explored the tip of the iceberg as to the potential creative uses of heritage content to engage a variety of audiences. In addition, it will discuss how addressing specific needs of diverse audiences to engage with heritage resources and digital fabrication technologies, while challenging, is vital for exploring the potential of these distinct but complementary research areas.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventDRHA16 Place, Ecology and the Digital: 20th anniversary Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts conference - University of Brighton, Brighton, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Sept 20167 Sept 2016


ConferenceDRHA16 Place, Ecology and the Digital
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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