National Constitution Center displays artifact replicas that were 3-D printed at VCU

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Celeste Fuentes, a freshman anthropology major and lab manager at the Virtual Curation Laboratory, shows off a plate fragment associated with a free African-American, contemporaneous with the signing of the Constitution.

A new display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia features artifact replicas 3-D printed and painted by Virginia Commonwealth University students.

The display, “Philadelphia 1787,” opened earlier this month as part of the center’s main exhibit, which pieces together life in Philadelphia at the time of the birth of a new nation. The exhibit features more than 80 archeological artifacts dating to the 18th century that were excavated in Philadelphia before construction of the National Constitution Center.

As part of the exhibit, visitors are invited to “touch the past” by interacting with 3-D-printed artifact replicas created in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, part of VCU’s School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. The lab focuses on the 3-D scanning and 3-D printing of historic and archaeological objects, including many notable artifacts from museums across Virginia and around the world.

VCU alumna Brenna Geraghty paints a replica German-made jar with rabbit design that was 3-D-printed in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.
VCU alumna Brenna Geraghty paints a replica German-made jar with rabbit design that was 3-D-printed in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

“This 3-D scanning and 3-D printing project with the National Constitution Center is the type of relationship that I like to foster between the Virtual Curation Laboratory and our partners in the cultural heritage community,” said Bernard Means, Ph.D., director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory and an instructor of anthropology. “VCU students are given the opportunity to work with replicas of significant artifacts important to our nation’s history and make a contribution that will enrich people who visit the National Constitution Center.”

Visitors to “Philadelphia 1787” can explore the 3-D-printed reproductions of the original artifacts, which are connected to specific people from the area or are representative of what they would have owned. The objects help illuminate the lives of everyday Philadelphians of various backgrounds who were living side by side, just steps away from where the momentous events of founding a nation were taking place.

In August, Means visited the center to 3-D scan the artifacts in the National Park Service’s Independence National Historical Park archaeology laboratory.

In the fall, VCU students Luke Davis-Lee, Charlie Parker, Diana Salazar, Benjamin Snyder, Nathalie Warden, Brittany Blanchard, Elsie Martin and Celeste Fuentes, and one alumna, Brenna Geraghty, worked in the Virtual Curation Laboratory to 3-D print and paint the reproductions.

This is real world experience with helping create a museum exhibit.

As an example, the students 3-D printed and painted a replica of an ornate, imported green plate that was excavated on the site of the home of James Dexter, a free African-American coachman and prominent member of Philadelphia’s free black community.

“These undergraduate students and one alumna worked faithfully to create accurately painted 3-D printed replicas, knowing that they would be incorporated into an exhibit in historic Philadelphia,” Means said. “This is real world experience with helping create a museum exhibit that these students and the alumna can list on their resumes or graduate school applications. In fact, alumna Brenna Geraghty was hired as the new museum manager at Chippokes Plantation State Park in part because of her work on this exhibit.”

Means and the students also created 3-D-printed replicas for use by undergraduate students doing research at VCU. Some of the students will present on the National Constitution Center project at the spring undergraduate research poster conference at VCU.

The National Constitution Center's
The National Constitution Center's "Philadelphia 1787" display invites visitors to "touch the past," via 3-D-printed artifact replicas produced by VCU's Virtual Curation Laboratory. Photo courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

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