Last Saturday I went to UCL to attend an open day at the Institute of Making, a cross-disciplinary workshop space and centre for research into materials science. The interface between art and science seems to me to be a very interesting area to occupy, and whilst perhaps the bulk of people attracted to this centre may be scientists, makers and artists, this kind of research is also very relevant to the conservator. New materials may provide new solutions to old problems, or we may be able to appropriate equipment or techniques beneficial to our own practice.
I stopped first at a stall where we were invited to play with beads of a thermo-plastic that is pliable at a low temperature and therefore usable in a domestic environment as it merely needs to be dunked in hot water for a few minutes. I keenly tried to think of something useful to make from it – among the provided suggestions were using it to create custom grips for tools, which could indeed be useful for those of us that like to make and adapt their own tools. I made a brush rest in the end – not very exciting but I’m hoping a more purposeful way to use this kind of substance will eventually present itself to me.
Upstairs there were three examples of 3-D printers, ranging from a high end, sophisticated behemoth, to a DIY kit which can be put together for a couple of hundred pounds (if you have the technical skills). Here is a quick snap of the mid-range version engaged in printing a small pink rabbit:
Examples of other objects that had been produced included a working adjustable spanner, various cog mechanisms, and chains (some of these produced using a technique which fuses a powder into the required design, meaning that creating ready-linked chains is easy). The chatty and enthusiastic science chap manning this equipment informed us that various materials can now be used in combination with these printers, and told us about a recent medical first where a titanium jaw was created to exactly fit the dimensions of an injured face. This technology is gradually becoming cheaper, and perhaps could prove to be a useful technique with which to make bespoke mounts to fit museum objects exactly, or even perhaps create fills for 3-D artefacts with losses. Creating accurate facsimiles by using a 3-D scanner and a 3-D printer could also be a possibility.
The last table I stopped at was mainly concerned with the Institute’s Materials Library, which not only contains many new and wonderful materials, but also invites us to reconsider those that we think we are familiar with. I spent a while discussing pigments with someone there, including substances which change colour with temperature or concentration, and various other exciting things. The Institute hopes to run pigment making workshops later in the year, and also has several other interesting sounding workshops planned such as making your own folding knife, neon-making, and (my favourite sounding workshop) rope making and knotting with sailors’ rope-expert Des Pawson. I recommend joining their mailing list in order to keep abreast of all of the exciting things they are doing there.