The Forbidden City has—at least to Western eyes— been shrouded in mystery over the course of its almost-600-year history, and the headlines it’s making today tell a classic tale, not only of East meeting West, but of Old meeting New. It turns out, the Forbidden City is about to undergo an extreme home makeover of monumental proportions but, instead of construction crews, the renovators will be using 3D printers.
China’s Palace Museum—with funding from the Chinese government—has tasked Loughborough University in the UK to restore select antiquities in the Forbidden City using 3D printing.
Located in the center of Beijing, the Forbidden City took some 15 years to construct and served both as China’s political center and home to its emperors from the palace’s completion in 1420 to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The palace grounds encompass upwards of a thousand buildings within its sprawling 180-acre complex and currently houses the Palace Museum, which had recently undertaken a 16-year restoration project to repair those buildings to their pre-1912 glory.
PhD student Fangjin Zhang—along with her colleagues at Loughborough Design School in the East Midlands of England—had, for a number of years, been looking into the use of 3D printing as means to restore sculptures and archaeological relics. According to a Loughborough press release, Zhang developed a “formalized approach tailored specifically to the restoration of historic artifacts.” After reviewing Zhang’s techniques, the Palace Museum then invited Loughborough researchers to repair several Forbidden City artifacts, including the ceiling and enclosure of a pavilion in the Emperor Chanlong Garden.
Loughborough’s Dr Ian Campbell, the research team supervisor, said, “We are delighted to be working with the museum, using this very modern and innovative technique to restore and safeguard some of China’s most important artifacts. There is real scope for this technique to be used in museums across the world.”
Traditional archaeological restoration entails measuring, photographing and repairing relics, all by hand, and requires lavish amounts of time and resources. However, Zhang’s new technique involves capturing the object in digital 3D form, using laser or optical scanners, and then repairing the digital model before 3D printing the replica. Zhang and company have already fabricated relics from the collections of the Forbidden City and other museums. As 3D Printer Hub reported in an earlier article, the Smithsonian Institution has embarked on a similar program to digitize and 3D print its own collection, which numbers some 137 million objects.
Enterprising SketchUp artists have already uploaded models of Forbidden City structures to Google 3D Warehouse. Hopefully, as Zhang’s work progresses, we’ll see 3D models of Chinese relics cropping up on 3D Warehouse and Thingiverse and, if we’re really lucky, someone will have designed one of those pesky palace eunuchs.