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Restoring China’s Forbidden City

01 June 2012

Loughborough University designers are using the latest 3D digital technologies to help restore ancient artefacts from the Palace Museum in Beijing. The museum, also known as the Forbidden City, is currently undertaking major renovation work funded by the Chinese Government - a huge project that involves thousands of individual historic relics.

With conventional methods, these objects need to be measured, photographed and repaired using manual techniques, an extremely time-consuming and expensive task. However, recent research at Loughborough Design School has helped to speed up the project, saving time and money. Since 2009, Loughborough Design School PhD student Fangjin Zhang and colleagues have been investigating the use of 3D printing and other digital technologies in sculptural and archaeological restoration work.

Already widely used in industry to create objects from CAD data, the application of this method to archaeological artefacts requires the shape of the original objects to be ‘captured’ using laser or optical scanners, and the data to be ‘cleaned-up’ using reverse engineering techniques. Through this process damaged areas can be digitally restored ready for the 3D printing process.

While this has been possible for some time, Miss Zhang is currently developing a formalised approach tailored specifically to her area of expertise - the restoration of historic artefacts. The process has now been applied to a range of objects from the Forbidden City and elsewhere.

Following recent visits to the museum where Miss Zhang has been able to explain and illustrate the many uses and benefits of 3D printing, Loughborough has now been asked use this technique to repair several specific artefacts. These include the ceiling and enclosure of a pavilion in the Emperor Chanlong Garden.

Speaking about the project, Loughborough Design School’s Dr Ian Campbell, who is supervising the research, 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 artefacts. There is real scope for this technique to be used in museums across the world.”

The Director of the Ancient Architecture Department in the Palace Museum and member of the China Association for Preservation Technology of Cultural Relics, Shiwei Wang added: “This is a good start, and we hope the research on these applications will continue as the prospects are very broad.”

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