RIT’s 3D printing resolves an issue of respect in cultural exhibition

Museum seeks out new technology to replicate sacred artifacts that otherwise might not be displayed

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Amy Blum/Ganondagan State Historic Site

Mike Buffalin, left, and Denis Cormier assess images of the Seneca comb to be 3D printed at RIT.

Denis Cormier is using 21st century technology to preserve ancient, sacred Seneca Indian artifacts.

The professor of industrial and systems engineering was approached last spring by Michael Galban, historian at the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, N.Y., to help produce a 3D-printed replica of an 18th century moose antler comb for the new Seneca Art & Cultural Center opening at the site in October.

Story telling is an important part of the Seneca Indian culture. The images on the face of a moose antler comb tell a story about the world at the time for the Seneca people. But many of the combs were more than adornments. They were sometimes buried with the deceased as part of funeral ceremonies—therefore private, respected items that should not be on public display. Galban proposed a way to balance respect for the objects and still provide an opportunity to educate people about Seneca life by using a replica created through 3D printing.

“Since we do not know if these objects are funerary, we need to be mindful of cultural objections and sensitivities, and in this case, 3D printing was the acceptable answer,” said Galban (Washoe, Paiute). Aware of RIT’s expertise in this area and its non-typical applications of the technology, he contacted Cormier, a top researcher in 3D printing and advanced manufacturing technologies.

Cormier and engineering graduate student Michael Buffalin used a mobile scanner to image the comb, an item permanently housed at the Rochester Museum and Science Center as part of its extensive Rock Foundation Collection of Native American artifacts. Many of the items in the collection are rarely displayed, used only for research purposes.

Images of the comb were downloaded to the 3D printer in the Brinkman Lab in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering. Overnight, thousands of layers of liquid resin, each layer only the thickness of a single human hair, were set down, producing a replica of the comb with the same dimensions and unique designs of the original—intricate cutouts of two individuals in a boat or canoe. The mobile scanning process had less of an impact on the delicate structures of the comb and produced a replica far more accurate than a conventional mold, Cormier explained.

“In the same way that 3D printing has allowed inventors access to make prototypes of their devices, this type of application makes it possible to produce replicas that were quite difficult previously,” said Cormier. “Now there is the ability to educate people about culture and history and to view items they previously didn’t have access to. It opens up a lot of doors.”