Industry insight

Media Home / PRESS / Industry insight / Repatriations & restorations: The growing role of digital manufacturing technology in cultural herit

Repatriations & restorations: The growing role of digital manufacturing technology in cultural herit

Source:        DateTime:2022.01.06        Hits:

Several times a year, Edwell John Jr., the leader of the Tlingit Dakl’aweidí clan of the Alaskan village of Angoon, finds himself travelling to important ceremonies in other Native American communities. At these gatherings, speeches may be given, stories told, songs sung, and dances performed. Whatever is on the agenda, it is almost certain that John would take with him his Kéet S’aaxw (Killer Whale Hat), a sacred object known as At.óow that embodies the Dakl’aweidí’s history and ancestral spirits.


But should that hat be damaged or broken in transit, not only would it cause much distress for John, but arrangements would have to be made for its repair or replacement. Per Tlingit tradition, a carver from an opposite clan would be commissioned to fix or create a new hat, giving them the opportunity to make modifications to the design to mark the hat’s next chapter, or to precisely mirror the original.


[For me,] the repair of that hat becomes part of that story, so it’s not necessary to make an exact replica,” John tells TCT. “I can't speak on behalf of the Kaagwaantaan or the Kiks.ádi [two fellow Tlingit clans], I can only speak on behalf of my clan house. It’s up to the individual clan leader if they want something exact or if they want a slight variation. And the reason for the variations, for me personally, is there could be an added story to that hat.”


It’s a principle that John has held ever since – as he became the caretaker of the Dakl’aweidi clan’s crest objects – he began working closely with the Smithsonian Institution to repatriate sacred items back to the Tlingit community. In 2005, a Killer Whale Hat was repatriated to John’s predecessor, Mark Jacobs Jr., who passed away just 11 days later. Seven years on, John took the hat back to the Smithsonian, allowing them to digitise and then fabricate a replica that would be exhibited in their National Museum of National History.


The replication of the hat using digital technology was highlighted by University of Brighton researchers Myrsini Samaroudi and Karina Rodriguez in an article published on in 2019. The thrust of the piece was to proffer 3D technologies as tools to support and facilitate repatriations, reuniting people with cherished items and replacing lost knowledge in affected communities, while still allowing museums to inform the public about the culture behind the objects.

By repatriating and later replicating the Killer Whale Hat, the Smithsonian Institution hit on a couple of those values. Having managed to send the hat back to Jacobs, the then Dakl’aweidí clan leader was able to communicate through it with his ancestors before he passed. With the subsequent creation of the replica, the Smithsonian is also able to continue informing its visitors of the hat and Jacobs’ story.

I don’t remember exactly when, but we began having conversations about digitising the hat and the multiple purposes that could serve,” Eric Hollinger, a Tribal Liaison for the Repatriation Office of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says. “One, a level of security for Edwell in case something happened to the original hat and then we also asked Edwell for permission to make a replica to be able to tell the story in the museum of the repatriation to Mark, because in repatriation, we often don’t have anything physical left to put on exhibit.”

With John’s permission, the Smithsonian used laser scanning to capture the shape of the object, photogrammetry to capture the colour information and file processing to blend the data together. Using alder wood – the material the original hat was made from supplied by the Tlingit, a replica was carved via CNC milling, with the object being placed in a freezer in between phases of machining to ensure it didn’t crack or warp. It has been on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum ever since; it was talked about at subsequent Tlingit clan conferences; it is loaned to Tlingit dance groups to wear in performances in Washington D.C; and it has helped to accelerate conversations between both parties around repatriation.

Such discussions are of increasing importance, with Samaroudi telling TCT that “museums have to evolve to remain relevant to society” and “enable people to make their voices heard.” Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK is one museum that has come under pressure from academics, authors and protest groups to address the origins of many of its exhibits. Recently, Pitt Rivers posted a statement on its website outlining its ‘commitment to change’ in which it will actively pursue repatriation and decolonisation opportunities.

Yet, the museum’s Head of Conservation, Jeremy Uden, tells TCT that there is some hesitance around the idea of using digital or 3D technologies to support those efforts. In a scenario where it is returning an artefact back to an affected community, the museum would prefer, if possible, to instead exhibit traditionally made replicas. Meanwhile, in an instance where the original cannot be returned, to send a 3D printed replica in its place, for example, may not suffice because the interest in the object is more to do ‘with the connection with their ancestors and the spiritual significance of the original object,’ than the look, feel or function.

Just down the road, though, ThinkSee3D has different experiences. In the Basse Yutz Flagons – a set of Iron Age ceremonial drinking vessels bought legitimately by the British Museum in the 1900s – the Oxford-based company 3D scanned, 3D printed and finished two replica objects before sending the identical copies to a French salt museum who missed out on buying the artefacts some 200 years ago.

A community in Donegal, Ireland has also accepted a 3D printed copy of an eighth century pilgrim bell – which is exhibited in their community museum and taken with them on their annual pilgrimage to St Connell’s Island – because of damages to the original, while a Nigerian community agreed to take replicas of some rare eighth-century bronzes that were cast from 3D printed moulds as they haven’t the means to look after the originals.

While these projects may not quite do enough to be considered real repatriation – since neither the original artefacts, nor ownership of them, have been returned – the affected communities have at least been able to utilise the replicas in some of the circumstances that the originals would have been, as with the St Connell’s bell, or have been able to reclaim and retell the story of the object, as with the Nigerian bronze replicas. These efforts are more likely to be referred to as sharing surrogates with communities, while Hollinger has also leveraged 3D technologies for ‘a new form of cultural restoration’ in his role with the Smithsonian.

A Tlingit Sculpin Hat project, like with ThinkSee3D’s Irish pilgrim bell, leant on digital technologies because of damages to the original, with a replica being milled by a member of a Tlingit opposite clan – as is custom in the community – and dedicated in ceremony to put spirit into the new hat, making it at.óow of the Kiks.adi, the clan to which the broken hat belonged.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian has also – as Samaroudi and Rodriguez suggested – used 3D technologies to replace lost knowledge in the Tlingit community by replicating a number of ancient spear throwers. The few known Tlingit spear throwers can only be found in museums or private collections, so the Smithsonian used laser and CT scanning to digitally capture the hunting tools, before 3D printing replicas in high-strength nylon. They have since been put to use in culture camps so Tlingit children can be reintroduced to the spear throwers’ use as hunting tools and carved artistry.

In the instances of the Tlingit clans – and the communities that ThinkSee3D has worked with – the use of 3D technologies to support repatriation, surrogate and cultural restoration efforts have been welcomed. But, in each Tlingit case at least, the process has taken several years. There are conversations aplenty to be had just to foster respect and relationships before the digital processes even get underway. Objects then have to be treated with care, cultural protocols agreed to, while there are also permissions to garner and ownership to be established. A further consideration is whether any replica object should be identical, or whether the community would prefer some distinction in the design between traditionally made objects and the digitally fabricated versions. ThinkSee3D has actively looked to make its replicas identical to the originals, and while John has his preferences, he can see both points of view.

I think there are some clan leaders – and I haven’t heard, so I’m just guessing – who would want somebody to physically make a hat [for example] for them,” John says. “So, rather than having the machine make the hat, they want to commission a person to carve the hat and dedicate the hat. For me, in my clan, it doesn’t have to be exact. I would prefer it a little bit different because that’s the story building part of the hat. If it’s an exact replica, we don’t have the story. It’s like somebody getting a scar. Maybe in future technology, that can be repaired, but some people might say, ‘I don’t want that repaired because it’s part of my story now.’”

As the work between the Tlingit community and the Smithsonian continues, there are set to be many more stories added to the heritage of the Dakl’aweidí, Kiks.ádi and other Tlingit clans. And as the discussion around repatriation intensifies, there may be many more opportunities for 3D printing and other digital fabrication technologies to satisfy both the source communities and the museums.

We should approach the subject of decolonisation and repatriation with an open mind, accepting other people’s voices, work towards the benefit of all and attempt to consider a variety of alternative solutions.

Hesitancy around the use of such technologies is only natural, with many communities placing immense value in tradition. Yet, the Tlingit have ensured traditions and cultural protocols – such as the relevant clan participating in the creation of a replica or surrogate; the opposite clan witnessing it; and ceremonies for the objects being carried out – are upheld. As such, the community is embracing modern technology and the opportunities that come with it.

Acknowledging these efforts, Samaroudi and Rodriguez suggest there is great potential in cultural heritage for 3D technologies, which are currently undergoing a ‘negotiation phase’ with regards to the range of their application and the establishment of best practices. Rodriguez also points out that, while museums need to keep pace with new technologies, 3D printing in particular needs to offer better materials, colour and texture capabilities, while also being more accessible for museums. Should that happen, it opens the door, as the Smithsonian and others have demonstrated, for museums to use the technology to ‘engage and collaborate with diaspora communities and international communities; reinterpret collections; embrace missing voices; and open up access by sharing 3D data and facilitating interaction with 3D printed replicas of artefacts.’

As far as it concerns the physical manifestation of artefacts through digital fabrication,” Samaroudi finishes, “we have to understand that discussions should not only focus on ‘who owns replicas’ or ‘who gets what’, but on what the possibilities are to establish an honest dialogue with the communities while taking advantage of the potential of digital technologies to support and take that discourse further. We should approach the subject of decolonisation and repatriation with an open mind, accepting other people’s voices, work towards the benefit of all and attempt to consider a variety of alternative solutions.”