3D Printing & The Digital Humanities

This semester, Vanderbilt’s new makerspace and center for innovation, the Wond’ry, approached us at the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA) with space for an exhibit to showcase the unique and collaborative nature of the archive. In putting together the exhibit, another opportunity for collaboration emerged between SSDA, the Wond’ry, and three creative doctors of radiology at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital: the replication of sacred objects and art related to the archive, through 3D scanning and printing.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive preserves endangered documents related to Africans and African-descended peoples in slave societies from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The vast majority of records in the archive come from places in underserved areas of the Atlantic world with a high concentration of African-descended populations. Often the institutions lack funding to make their crumbling collections available to the public. SSDA teams take photographs of each page of these records in order to create a digital repository of unused primary sources for the history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic world. The exhibit at the Wond’ry displays the processes and workflow of the archive, and the populations whose stories await to be discovered within.

Bow with Devil
Dr. Hansen Bow using the 3D scanner at the radiology lab at VUMC.

Documents without context only tell a partial story. We wanted to show some of the objects that are important to the people found in our documents. The originals though, were too fragile to keep on display without supervision, and so Kevin Galloway at the Wond’ry suggested we try a collaborative approach. The doctors at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital Radiology Lab were excited to take on the challenge. The majority of their work with 3D scanning and printing involves medical models. SSDA’s objects, with their irregular shapes,  surfaces, and colors, proved to be a challenge.

Most interesting for me were the conversations that went into which features of reproductions are the most significant for communicating their cultural value to the viewer. The nature of scanning and printing with abs material on a 3D printer means that some details would have to be sacrificed, while others could be enhanced. At what point were the sacrifices and enhancements superficial, and at what point did they alter the meaning of the object?

We had these conversations while Doctors Hansen Bow, Steven Lewis, and Sumit Pruthi

The Diablo Cojuelo being printed.

adjusted the scanners and took multiple images, explaining which features might be difficult for the printer, and how to compensate for that. For example, the oversized carnival mask of the Diablo Cojuelo from the Dominican Republic caused a lot of discussion.  The original mask was made with papier mache and used during carnival season by descendants of the enslaved in the Dominican Republic. It was the only one of our objects that was hollow, and had the most pronounced features: pointed ears, horns, a giant nose,  and sharp teeth. Parts of it, like the mouth and eyes, are cut out. The first print didn’t quite go as we planned.

Dr. Steven Lewis said:

“This was a great project for us to take on for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it allowed us to utilize our newest 3D printer. That printer also happened to be the one with the largest build volume. Since the mask was one of the largest items that we had scanned to date, it allowed us to make use of approximately the entire surface of the printer’s build platform. We even had to scale the mask down slightly because the horns extended outside of the printable region.

The next challenge for us was to determine the best orientation to print the mask. Most 3D printers require support structures to be built up along with the actual model so that any overhanging areas or difficult geometries can print correctly without collapsing. Having many support structures in the model increases print time, total material used, and requires additional post-processing time to remove them once the print is complete. We always try to optimize the orientation of our models to minimize the amount of overhangs, and thus support structures, that are present in the final print. The devil mask had a number of complex curves and exaggerated facial features which required precise alignment to minimize the overall support material. We ended up attempting the first prints with the mask oriented upside down, with the horns resting on the base of the build platform.

Another thing we learned printing this mask was how challenging it can be to print highly curved, thin-walled structures. We initially attempted to print the mask as a thin shell, similar to a mask that you would wear on your face. However, we found that because of the many accentuated curves and facial features on the mask, the print would fail at certain points because individual layers were separating from one another as they cooled during the print. To resolve this, we ended up creating a flat back on the mask and printed it face up on the build platform.

Overall, we learned a lot from doing this print and many of the things we learned will be important considerations when we print large scale medical models such as spines, femurs and skulls.”

The Original Diablo Cojuelo mask next to its 3D replica in the Exhibit.

Overall, the SSDA learned a lot from doing this as well. Once all the objects were printed, painted, and placed in the exhibit, we had a reception to celebrate the opening. Watching our guests and curious public examining these replicas was fascinating. They were able to engage with them on multiple levels. The originals aren’t able to be handled much, but the replicas are sturdier, allowing people a proximity and tactile experience the originals could not have provide. The replicas had both value as visualizations/representations of the African Diaspora, as well as objects that illustrated the challenges and nuances that accompany 3D printing objects of cultural and/or artistic significance. And most importantly, they got people talking about the archive and all of its rich holdings.

Part of the Exhibit about SSDA: pictured are two photographs from teams working to digitize records in Brazil and Colombia. Next to them a cloth from Angola upon which sit several objects of significance to the populations in SSDA’s records: La Nganga filled with an axe, machete, sticks, iron, horns, and tortoiseshell,  as well as the replicated stone head of the Afro-Cuban diety Eshu, and replicas of Yam Festival twins from the Ashanti People in Ghana.



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