Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

In 2008 the National Museum embarked on a project to enhance the availability of its displays for persons with disabilities. A strong focus was placed on the needs of visually impaired visitors; this was a first for museums in South Africa at the time. This development involved the creation of touch-friendly displays, braille text panels, audio tours and guided tours for blind visitors.

In the Museum environment objects are traditionally displayed in a ‘look but do not touch’ fashion. This is a valid attitude from a conservation standpoint as many of the specimens and artefacts on display have great value or significance, or they are too small or fragile to be handled repetitively or in an uninhibited manner.Therefore the greatest challenge was how to show something too delicate or valuable to touch to somebody who observes with their hands.Customarily models and reproductions have been used when original examples could not be made available, this tactic has been employed extensively as a teaching aid in the past. But the rapid development of new technologies has opened up a world of possibilities, not only for consumer markets but also for research and how information can be collected, preserved and presented to the public.

Members of the Free State Society for the Blind putting the 3D models through a trial run at a recent visit to the Museum. From left to right: Jan Andries Neethling (Museum Arachnologist), Anne de Beer, Pannie de Beer (Rendezvous Support Group).

Internationally Museums are embracing new technologies, 3D printing is but one of the exciting developments being utilized. Likewise, digital imaging techniques have been a chosen method for non-destructive sampling into one of a kind finds such as mummies and manuscripts for some time. 3D printing takes this a step further, it allows scientists to create physical replicas of items thatmay otherwise be unobtainable while still maintaining an unparalleled level of detail and information.

The National Museum decided that this would be the perfect solution to their ‘do not touch’ dilemma. 3D printed models could be produced from detailed scans of objects that cannot be handled by the public, they could be reproduced on a legible scale, manufactured from extremely durable materials and if lost or damaged they could just as easily be replaced.

A team from the Museum Design Department met with representatives from The Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) and the Department of Design and Studio Art(DDSA) of the Central University of Technology (CUT). The project vision was related to these specialists and together a workable plan for its execution was devised by the team. Dr Kobus van der Walt, a Senior Researcher from the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at CUT, arranged that the project isin part funded under the Polymer Additive Manufacturing Programme of the National Collaborative Programme in Additive Manufacturing. This is an initiative by the Department of Science and Innovation to promote research in additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, in South Africa.

A total of 20 specimens (one large scorpion, four pseudoscorpions, five ground mites, and 10 bird skulls) were selected for the first round of printing. They were sent to the CT Scanner Facility at Stellenbosch University where Micro Computed Tomography (micro-CT) and Nano Computed Tomography (nano-CT) were used to generate three-dimensional images of the specimens. They ranged in size from the smallest mite of approximately 0.2mm to the longest bird skull of about 230 mm. The micro-CT and nano-CT scan data was processed by CRPM Operations Manager, Johan Els into printable STL files, and reproduced at their facilities in an EOS P385 Selective Laser Sintering system in white PA2200 Polyamide (Nylon) powder to create highly durabletouch models. After cleaning, the models were painted by Museum Artist, Toni Pretorius, and installed into a permanent display in the Museum building. The models were reproduced on an enlarged scale to increase the touchable surface area but also to enrich the sighted visitor’s experience by going beyond the limited capabilities of their sense of sight, making it possible to fully see that which would often only be visible under a microscope.

The data produced during this project will be useful for Museums setting up similar displays and may be suitablefor other research or educational projects. The data and workflow has been made available for download and can be found online at

This project cancontinue to grow and fully explore the potential of new technologies in presenting and exploring the diverse scientific fields practiced at the Museum. Even greater applications in the future promise to produce insightful, scientifically valuable information to both researchers and visitors.


Du Plessis A; Els J; le Roux SG; Tshibalanganda M; Pretorius T (2019): 3D printing data from enlarged museum specimens. GigaScience Database.

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