Museum3D: Experiments in engaging audiences using 3D

Liz Neely, American Alliance of Museums, USA, Elory Rozner, Uncommon Classrooms, USA


Museum3D at the Art Institute of Chicago put in place a year of experimentation in innovative approaches to audience engagement with the museum’s renowned encyclopedic collection using three-dimensional technologies. Programs targeted different audiences (family, adult, teen, tween, and educator) and varied in design (duration, mode, and size). This paper shares the museum's process and outcomes, as well as helpful guidelines for museums and educators to use 3D technologies with museum collections. Coauthors Liz Neely and Elory Rozner served as the Museum3D project director and the evaluator, respectively.

Keywords: 3Dprinting, 3D, experimentation, evaluation, education

1. Background

In the past few years, there has been an explosion surrounding the possibilities of three-dimensional printing. The use of 3D technologies could be applicable to museums in areas such as exhibition planning, conservation, and scholarly access. The Art Institute of Chicago recently embarked on a research project supported by a year-long IMLS Sparks Grant that focused specifically on evaluating the potential impact of 3D technologies in terms of broader audience engagement with museum collections. A team of educators, artists and technologists designed and hosted a series of public programs incorporating 3D technologies. The learnings from the Museum3D project evaluation provide guidelines allowing museums of different types with varied resources to meaningfully incorporate these technologies. We hope these recommendations may also be helpful to educators interested in using museum collections with 3D in their classrooms, after-school programs, or makerspaces.

2. Museum3D process

The departments of Digital Experience and Access (DEA) and Museum Education developed five public programs incorporating aspects of 3D printing and scanning technologies. The programs targeted different audiences (family, adult, teen, tween, and educator) and varied in design (duration, mode, and size). Each program was evaluated for distinct engagement-focused outcomes adhering to overarching guiding questions for investigation.

For the duration of the grant period, a Museum3D advisory team met monthly to collaboratively discuss the incorporation of these technologies and to address associated challenges. This team comprised museum educators, technologists, evaluation consultant Elory Rozner of Uncommon Classrooms (coauthor of this paper), and partners from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) including 3D printing artist/instructor Tom Burtonwood. For inspiration and to broaden the team knowledge, most monthly meetings invited guest speakers who had employed 3D technologies in museum public programs. Staff feedback noted that establishing the advisory team advanced the depth of the conversation for the overall project and supported collaboration across divisions.

Program details

Five programs were developed and evaluated by the Museum3D grant initiative, with a final capstone showcase event to share and discuss outcomes.

Program 1: Diwali Family Festival (families)

The fifth annual Diwali Family Festival took place November 9, 2013, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The target audience was families with children ages two to sixteen. The program was drop-in; guests came and went as they pleased. A total of 671 people participated in the Museum3D activities.

Figure 1: young visitors at the Art Institute pose like a statue to be modeled in 3D using a Microsoft Kinect and ReconstructMe.

Figure 1: young visitors at the Art Institute pose like a statue to be modeled in 3D using a Microsoft Kinect and ReconstructMe

The festival included a variety of participatory art activities in the Ryan Education Center (REC) and select museum galleries. The Museum3D experiences were part of an extensive menu of offerings designed to highlight the museum’s collection of Southeast Asian Art and included clay sculpture, Bollywood dance workshops, and storytelling and drawing in the galleries. In the REC, participants sat (alone or with a parent, sibling, friend) on a swiveling platform and posed (ideally) in the style of a sculpture from the galleries, of which there were posters of artwork on the nearby wall. Facilitators captured the poses, and everyone watched as the digital recreations came to life on an overhead monitor. Many parents photographed or made videos of the process. In an adjoining room, 3D artist Tom Burtonwood manned two MakerBot 3D printers; participants observed the movement while asking Tom questions. In addition, participants made sculptures out of Play-Doh using 3D printed molds of objects and handled 3D printed objects of museum-collection artwork.

In the Alsdorf Gallery, participants used Art Institute-provided iPods and iPads to photograph Buddha Seated in Meditation (or, if desired, another sculpture) by walking around it and capturing twenty to forty images. Then, using Autodesk’s 123D Catch software, participants created a 3D image of the sculpture and viewed/manipulated it. Participants also used mobile devices to view images from the gallery and object scans that other participants created.

Program 2: Hands On! accessibility tours (adults)

The Hands On! tours for adults took place March 17 and 18, 2014. The tour on March 17 served adults living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia; there were a total of fifteen participants. The tour on March 18 served visitors with low vision; there were a total of sixteen participants. The tours, designed and led by the assistant director of Senior Programs at the Museum, were forty-five minutes in length.

Figure 2: a visitor with sight impairment 'sees' the collection object by touching a 3D-printed replica.

Figure 2: a visitor with sight impairment “sees” the collection object by touching a 3D printed replica

The tours provided a multisensory experience, activating sight (when/if possible), sound, and touch. Each tour featured four artifacts from different galleries. Participants wore headsets to amplify the tour guide’s voice. Accompanying participants were volunteers to assist with repeating tour guide content, handling objects, and navigation.

In advance of the tours, museum staff selected objects from the collection that would be scanned, 3D modelled, and printed for participants to hold and touch. Although printed objects were not the same weight, nor materials as the original objects, they were printed at a 1:1 scale. One object’s replica (a Chinese bronze bell) was not 3D printed but instead was created in the same material as the original object.

At each stop on the tour, participants handled the object replicas while discussing and learning about the original works of art, listened to music related to the objects, and interacted with the objects by making sounds from them (a bell, a whistle).

Program 3: Teen Lab (teens)

Teen Lab, designed for students ages fourteen to eighteen enrolled in Chicago public schools, runs twice a year at the Art Institute, each time for ten weeks. The spring 2014 Teen Lab program, Objecthood, ran from January 29 to April 3 and involved fifteen participants. Participants met after school three times a week for three hours to explore the Museum, make creative projects inspired by their experiences, have gallery discussions, meet museum staff and artists, and experiment with new ideas and media. Students applied for the program and received program awards for their participation. Teen Lab is run in partnership with After School Matters, a nonprofit organization focused on out-of-school-time opportunities.

Figure 3: a teen program participant examines different modes of art making both old and new using 3D-printing and carving in alabaster.

Figure 3: a teen program participant examines different modes of art-making both old and new using 3D printing and carving in alabaster

The goal of the semester was for teens to critically investigate, through discussion and studio activities, the meaning and value of making objects today. Three-dimensional production, introduced a few weeks after program launch, was only one component of the Teen Lab curriculum. Teens experimented with scanning, designing, printing, and had the option to utilize 3D production in their final projects.

Program 4: “Objects: Remixed, Reconfigured” (tweens)

The Tween Art Camp, titled “Objects: Remixed, Reconfigured,” ran from June 23 to 27, 2014, at the Museum. Participants, ages eight to twelve from Chicago and the suburbs, came to the Museum each day from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Participants applied to the program and received free tuition upon acceptance.

Figure 4: tweens explored the idea of re-mixing the collection and 3D design using Tinkercad.

Figure 4: tweens explored the idea of remixing the collection and 3D design using Tinkercad

The content of Tween Camp focused on the concept of remixing/reconfiguring. Tweens spent time in the galleries looking at mixed/remixed/mashed-up objects, in the studio making their own remixed work, and designing and printing original work on the 3D printer. A total of twelve tweens—eight female and four male—enrolled in the program. One tween, a female, dropped out after the first day without citing a reason.

Program 5: Teacher Workshop—An Introduction to 3D Printing (educators)

This introductory workshop was offered as part of ongoing professional development opportunities available to educators year-round at the Museum. The program took place from July 9 to 11, 2014, and ran each day from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with one hour for lunch. A total of fifteen teachers—twelve female and three male, a mix of elementary, middle school, and high school teachers across disciplines—enrolled in the program. One student, a male, dropped out after the first day citing reasons of dissatisfaction regarding content and pedagogy. The program was fee based.

Figure 5: an educator designs and 3D-prints a prototype for a drone while learning about 3D design in a professional development workshop for teachers.

Figure 5: an educator designs and 3D prints a prototype for a drone while learning about 3D design in a professional-development workshop for teachers

The main goal of the educator workshop was to give participants a well-rounded introduction to the entire spectrum of 3D printing production, from ideation to creating a finished product. The pedagogical model emphasized peer-to-peer instruction and flipped teaching; participants were encouraged to consult online tutorials on their own time and bring specific problems to the class. Teachers spent time in the galleries exploring original works of art and in the studio learning to use SketchUp, designing work, and producing work on the 3D printer. The thrust was disruption: taking a personal/memorable/significant object from home, intervening with that object’s design and purpose, and printing a new version of the object.

Program 6: Capstone event project showcase (public)

Wrapping up the grant, the Museum3D team held an event September 18, 2014, to showcase the program and project results. The evening included work accomplished in the public programs, a panel discussion from program leads, and an overall evaluation outcome report.

3. Framing the evaluation

Because the Museum3D project goal aimed to determine effective methods for using 3D technologies in public programs, evaluation was a central component of the project’s design. The project evaluator worked closely with the Museum3D advisory team to refine the grant’s core questions intended to guide the evaluation process. Individual evaluation instruments were designed for each program looking to capture data addressing the following three overarching guiding questions across all five Museum3D public programs.

Guiding Questions:

In what ways (or to what degree) is engagement evident as audiences participate in 3D production programs?

For this question, the investigation honed in on two high-level engagement indicators that were measurable/relevant across the five programs: Focused Action and Connection.

In what way(s) does exposure to 3D production activities impact audience understanding and perception of the AIC collection, art objects, and art-making?

Although the question uses the term “understanding,” the team determined that “discernment” more accurately represented our intended investigation. This investigation, therefore, focused on the impact of 3D production programming on participant discernment and perception of the Museum, art objects, and art-making.

What are the identifiable factors that influence/impact program efficacy?

The quantitative data in the investigation only tell one part of the story. To get at the next level of information, we conducted debriefs with leads for each program to explore the weight of four variables on program efficacy: the ability for the program to achieve its intended outcomes. The four factors we explored were audience characteristics, program design, differentiation, and object selection.

4. Significant takeaways

  1. Getting through the glass is powerful. And possible. Multisensory experiences facilitate connection with the collection.

“Touching awakens my imagination. I could see it better, but in a different way. Touching made up for lack of vision; it was a very emotional experience.”

—Adult sight-impaired tour participant

“When something is described, you’re taking someone else’s impression/perspective. But if you give me the delicious pastry, then I can make my own decision about what it is.”

—Adult sight-impaired tour participant

The strongest evidence of 1:1 relationship development came from adults on the guided tours. This response is likely attributed to the self-described emotional experience—the awakening—created by the multisensory inputs. The teen, tween, and educator programs yielded the same data levels (also high) for this indicator.

We learned that the replica objects, despite being different sizes, weights, and materials from the original objects—and despite being copies of the original—were fully welcomed by participants. A museum educator observed that “[participants] asked questions about the original object’s material, suggesting recognition that the plastic 3D model was of a different material and knowing the original material was important. Not that the plastic material was inherently inferior! The difference in material became a vehicle for engagement.”

  1. Encounters with 3D printed objects provoke critical thinking about art. Both making and viewing generate discussion about art, art-making, and artistry.

“This [3D printing] gives everybody a chance to be an artist.”

—Teen Lab participant

Both the teen and educator groups engaged in intellectual discussions about their perceptions of art, art-making, and artistry. Neither conversation offered a definitive conclusion; as participants pointed out, perception is subjective. The tweens reported the act of art-making and remixing as the primary reason for their new/renewed relationship with the Museum.

One Teen Lab student made the observation:

Donatello’s David—how he used strictly marble, didn’t use other media. Marble is really really hard. How he sculpted it; it looked smooth and polished. It was much harder for him to do that. It’s much easier today to print. Anybody can be an artist. If you have idea and materials you can just print it; versus education, going to classes, spending time sculpting.

For his final project, this teen made a work titled Old Art vs. New Art, which included 3D printed objects and an alabaster carving.

  1. Living fully in the 3D production ecosystem is healthy. Participating in all components on the production spectrum leads to greater connection and discernment.
Figure 6: the 3D Production Ecosystem outlines the different functions of 3D that can be used when designing programs. The different functions can be mixed and matched in non-linear form depending on the goals and constraints of the program.

Figure 6: the 3D production ecosystem outlines different functions of 3D that can be used when designing programs. The different functions can be mixed and matched in non-linear form depending on the goals and constraints of the program.

The 3D production ecosystem can be broadly divided into six functional categories: scanning, designing, manipulating, printing, the designed output, and sharing. Each category allows for different types of engagement with a museum’s collection. While programs can be designed to use much or little of this ecosystem, investigation revealed that programs using more aspects, such those with the teens, tweens, and educator, indicated a deeper effect of the connection and discernment indicators. Incorporating more of the ecosystem into a program is also time consuming; therefore, this longer program design may also be a correlating factor.

Figure 7: a detailed outline of the functions and skills associated with the 3D Production Ecosystem Model.

Figure 7: a detailed outline of the functions and skills associated with the 3D Production Framework

The Hands On! adult accessibility tours engaged in only the output portion of the 3D ecosystem, and yet were very high impact. The reason for this perhaps unexpected finding is most likely due to the unique audience characteristics and strong program design.

  1. Experimental programming requires specific infrastructure. Collaboration and flexibility are essential.

Public programs intending to use unfamiliar technologies need to have a highly collaborative and communicative exchange among departments with different expertise. Museum3D had resourcing and communication challenges even with the structure of the grant and the advisory team. For example, the Teen Program was designed within a loose framework to promote opportunities for learner-directed experiences. This type of responsive planning had challenges because it did not give much lead time for scheduling human resources, equipment, software needs, training, etc.

Having the flexibility to adjust the program on the fly also served these experimental programs well. Crowd flow and activities were redeveloped during the first hour of the Diwali Family event when confusion and wait times were evident. It was agreed that these quick changes improved the offering for the remainder of the program.

  1. The strong presence of facilitators significantly impacts program efficacy. Other key factors are program setting and structure.

The most significant subfactor within program design was facilitation: the presence and strength of museum staff, teaching artists, and technical assistance. This group, responsible for program content and pedagogy, tailored programming to meet the needs of distinct audiences, interpreted the museum collection and helped make connections between visitors and museum content, and inspired the act of art-making. At the tween, teen, and educators programs, the ratio of facilitator to student was 3:1.

One participant cited “Lucas’s [the educator/tour guide] calm, engaging manner of asking questions and listening” as a key factor, and another said the facilitated tour brought the objects to life; on her own she “would have just walked right by.”

5. Recommendations

The following recommendations and roadmap provide guidelines for museums and educators interested in using museum collections with 3D in their classrooms, after-school programs, or makerspaces.

Design multisensory experiences to facilitate greater connection between visitors and the collection. Three-dimensional printing offers a relatively easy, inexpensive way to create replicas for use in programming. Work to integrate other senses as well—sound, taste, smell—into program experiences.

When possible, design 3D production experiences that cut across the full production ecosystem. Feasibility of this idea depends on program goals, audience, duration, and other constraints.

Focus on facilitation, program setting, and program structure when designing new experiences. Conduct additional research to unpack the other factors that may impact program efficacy.

Invite participants to explore what art, art-making, and artistry mean to them. Use the 3D objects to spark investigation of the museum collection, and vice versa. Include audiences of all ages in this conversation.

6. Roadmap for future 3D programs


Pilot, practice, document.
Leave ample time prior to program kickoff to 3D print the objects needed during the program, pilot the activities using the dedicated software/hardware, and create necessary technical documentation to ease the visitor experience.

Be audience appropriate.
Can an eight year old sit still long enough to produce a successful self-scan? Will a teen stay on task after being at school all day? The programs at the Art Institute were successful partly because the (very experienced) educators carefully mapped the programs to the anticipated needs and interests of the different audiences.

Plan for collaboration.
Do you need curator assistance to 3D print gallery objects? Do you need buy-in from other departments or higher-ups to spend the required staff/time/money on 3D production? Gather the ammunition as part of (or prior to) your program planning.

Assess your program space.
Plan your space based on your desired learning environment and audience activities you plan for your program. Do you want the more formal feel of a computing lab or pods of work stations that enable small-group collaboration like a makerspace? Space layout can impact how audiences engage and interact with each other, the technology, and project making. The educator, teen, and tween programs carefully planned their learning environments to optimize target audience engagement and technology access.


Staff appropriately.
Determine the number and type of staff you’ll need based on the number of activities planned, the number of different program spaces, and the estimated number of participants.

Be realistic about staff constraints.
Be realistic about what’s feasible to implement, given audience prior knowledge, the unique setting that a museum provides, and the complexity of working with 3D production software and hardware. Be ambitious and experimental, but set yourself—and therefore your audience—up for success by setting realistic expectations about what your staff can handle in a given day.

Build capacity.
See each program as an opportunity to develop new competencies and experts. Ensure that all staff participating receive adequate training on software and equipment. For collaborative programs, schedule the opportunity to learn from each other and build new relationships that could lead to future brainstorming and collaboration. Include external advisors and student interns not only as extra help and expertise, but also in ways that the team can build new knowledge.


Strong facilitation is key to program success.
As outlined above, the most significant aspect of program design—impacting program efficacy—was the presence of strong facilitators. Included in this umbrella term are internal educators, external teaching artists, and interns (from graduate schools, high schools, and other institutions). Gather and train the necessary troops to implement a successful program.

Technical assistance is also key to success.
When designing the program, factor in the right level (per program complexity, audience size, internal expertise, etc.) of technical experts needed for implementation. These experts play a crucial role in assisting with pre-production of 3D objects, handling the 3D production software and hardware, and assisting with fabrication and post-production cleanup.

Teaching artist: A must-have, or nice to have?
The presence of a teaching artist enables participants unique access to an expert in the field. Carefully outline the role of the teaching artist, and ensure that his/her presence and expertise are evident during programming. Depending on the context of programming—art museum, science center, etc.—a teaching artist may be a nice to have. At the Art Institute, given the questions under investigation (related to new ideas about art) and the newness of 3D production in museum settings (at the time of the grant), a teaching artist was a must-have.

Setting expectations

Product vs. process.
Some 3D production programs are about product, process, or both. Set expectations ahead of time so participants know whether they will walk away with finished work (in hand or online). Be sure that expectation setting includes the estimated amount of time required to make new work (i.e., it’s possible to walk away with finished work, but you’ll need to spend x minutes/hours waiting, etc.).

“Glitch is good.”
Be clear (with yourself and your audience) about the complexity level of the task, and the inherently messy nature of technology-based (especially 3D printed-based) programming. If frustration and failing are tenets of the program, be clear about that. This quote from the Educator PD program stands out: “I’m so confused and don’t know what I’m doing and don’t know where to begin.” Ultimately, this teacher powered through and felt accomplished, but the context of the workshop supported that level of frustration.

Prepare for the known barriers.
Make a list of known barriers based on previous programs of a particular type (family, teen, etc.) at your institution, and on previous tech-based (and/or specifically 3D printer-based) programs (at your institution or elsewhere). The known barriers to 3D printing include complexity of software programs, time required to wait for scans and prints, inexperience with hardware, and foreignness of 3D printing and 3D design process.


Determine how much equipment you’ll need.
How long will it take participants to complete the activity? How many participants will you have? Based on that (and other information, like how long devices will stay charged, etc.), determine the quantity of equipment.

Determine how you will be servicing equipment.
What is the process—and who is responsible—for refreshing supplies and recharging or fixing equipment?

Make sure your room can accommodate your equipment needs.
What amount of light will you need the room? Do you have enough power outlets? Do you need/have an overhead projector? Do proper ventilation and safety precautions exist for the equipment?

Be aware.
Devices—especially small ones—have a way of disappearing, especially in public spaces. Create a way to organize and track all equipment that is used for programs.

7. Closing remarks

The Museum3D initiative had wider impacts at the Art Institute beyond the primary investigation. Notably, the execution of the programs greatly benefited from building relationships with artists, students, and technology experts. Several programs used expertise and assistance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC) Advanced Output Lab (AOC) and the Department of Art and Technology Lab. Cultivating these relationships has lasting effects for future projects and could lead to continued innovative programming.

Three SAIC Cooperative interns brought a different energy, perspective, and skill set to the team, and a group from the SAIC “Cyberpedagogy” class supported the Diwali program. Within the Art Institute itself, the initiative offered new ways to collaborate across the technology and education departments. Lessons learned help the team build on interdepartmental project development. Advisory team reflections added that having evaluation as a central component has had an impact on future program planning.

As another broad outcome of the project, the Art Institute named 3D printing artist and Museum3D advisor Tom Burtonwood as its first Ryan Education Center artist-in-residence. Though this residency was not directly related to Museum3D, it added an ongoing complementary presence for museum visitors. Museum3D established new partnerships, helped the team learn collaborative techniques and built capacity.


Though this paper lists only two authors, it is the culmination of a team effort for which all made significant contributions to the initiative and this report. The Museum3D advisory team included the coauthors, Sarah Alvarez, Tom Burtonwood, Hillary Cook, Carolina Kaufman, Susan Kuliak, Lucas Livingston, Meghan McLaren, Sam Quigley, William Robertson, Robin Schnur, David Stark, and Georgina Valverde. Four SAIC Coop interns—Mark Kamish, Noah Coleman, Ryan Lariviere, and Yasmine Afshar—greatly supported the project. Carolina Kaufman supervised two interns and managed the logistics of team meetings and collaborations. Several teaching artists were outstanding collaborators, including Taylor Hokanson, Maura Flood, Jessica Hyatt, and Elizabeth Koprucki. Alan Labb from SAIC was extremely supportive in connecting the Museum3D leads to relevant areas at the school, including help from Adam Orcutt, Mike Dorries, and Colin Parsons of the Advanced Output Lab and Mark Anderson in the Art & Tech Labs. Jennifer Oatess and Helema Lewis supported the institutional grant logistics. Appreciation is due for the support from the Art Institute of Chicago’s leadership, including Judith Kirshner, David Thurm, and Douglas Druick. And, finally, thanks to IMLS for supporting innovative initiatives with its Sparks Grants.


Full documentation for this project can be found on the Museum3D blog (, including the evaluation report details.

Cite as:
. "Museum3D: Experiments in engaging audiences using 3D." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 24, 2015. Consulted .