(New Tech meets Timeless Problems) Caitlin Richeson, Rapid Prototype Conservation: A Collaborative Approach

By Jessica Walthew posted 6 days ago

Caitlin Richeson is a Winterthur student currently completing her graduate internship at MoMA. Her talk was coauthored with Emily Hamilton (Objects Conservator at SF MoMA) and concerned a research project completed as a collaborative effort between Winterthur and SF MoMA, where Caitlin interned last summer.  The abstract can be found here.

Caitlin carried out a survey of SF MoMA's collection focusing on rapid prototype materials (aka r.p., a general term for works made with additive manufacturing processes, usually referred to as "3d printing";  though, n.b. "3d printing" is actually a trademarked name specifying a particular process). Caitlin's survey looked to establish what types of materials and processes were used by artists in the SF MoMA collection, and then surveyed condition issues. Caitlin also surveyed other institutions with collections of 3d printed materials (including Cooper Hewitt, where I work) to get a better sense of the issues affecting these materials in a broader context.  A significant number of art and design objects produced today make use of computer aided additive manufacturing techniques, and these materials are becoming more widespread in museum collections. While many r.p. objects are made of plastics, there are also manufacturing processes for metals, glass, ceramics and almost any other material you can imagine. 

Richeson RP Survey Form
Image provided by Caitlin Richeson, with permission of SF MoMA.

This research project was sparked by condition issues already evident in a Polyjet printed work in SF MoMA's collection by designer Neri Oxman (MIT Media Lab). Polyjet printing uses a liquid photopolymer resin which cures with UV light. Caitlin carried out a technical study of the Oxman piece in the SF MoMA collection and made use of Winterthur's analytical resources to better understand the chemistry underlying condition issues (e.g. color change, shifts in texture and surface gloss). 

An important question for these works is whether artists and institutions will find reprinting a viable conservation treatment in the future-- not at all a straightforward matter.  Given the high level of post-processing involved in printing and the historical/material value of the original prints, there are very limited circumstances in which reprinting is really a viable conservation strategy. Caitlin also worked with Emily to develop an artist questionnaire, which they have been generous in sharing with other institutions, to help capture the important information about r.p. materials at the time of acquisition and help clarify the artist's opinions about future changes the materials are likely to undergo as they age. 

I have been following Caitlin's work on 3d printed materials and was glad to see the work presented at AIC where it has reached a broader audience. As a conservator at a design museum, this topic is a high priority for our future research as so many designers work with r.p. materials and processes, sometimes as preparatory steps for other works, or as the finished product. I am also glad to see that institutional collaborations with graduate training programs have enabled deeper collections-focused research complemented by analytical work, which is badly needed for the many new polymers introduced in our collections in rapid prototype objects. Thanks to Caitlin and Emily for sharing their research!

(note: I contacted the authors for additional information and they shared more complete research findings along with additional resources) 

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​​​Further reading (Open Access!): 

Preserving rapid prototypes: a review. Carolien Coon, Boris Pretzel, Tom Lomax and Matija Strlič. Heritage Science, 4:40 (2016)