Opinion | Let’s try to let go of our obsession with the unique work of art

“War destroys everything. The same is 30 years of cooperation.” According to the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the museum at Amstel unfortunately severed ties with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This separation had a practical consequence: empty exhibition spaces. its own exhibitions.

Museum Hermitage was thus forced to reinvent itself at lightning speed. It changed its name to Dutch Heritage Amsterdam (Dutch Heritage Amsterdam) and created a series of focus exhibitions around Dutch ‘public favorites’. In the first exhibition it is milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, in the center.

It is, of course, admirable that the museum is proving so robust and in the short term is able to fill the void left by the broken collaboration. The collaboration with other museums that lend their masterpieces is an excellent solution in the short term. But the theme and way of exhibiting is hardly surprising. Another exhibition about great Dutch champions. Again only Dutch masterpieces. In the long run, an innovative way of presenting art and collections will be more appropriate.

Due to the split, Dutch Heritage Amsterdam is a museum without works of art and logically goes back to what it knows, exhibition of loans. However, there is another way of presenting art that a museum does not own: by 3D scanning and printing of works of art. This may seem like a curse in the church to art historians. For who comes to look at a copy of a work of art? Is not authenticity the reason to come to the museum? Visitors only want the ‘right’ milkmaid ‘s Vermeer.


In a world full of fake news and deepfakes, we mainly relate the ‘authenticity’ and value of works of art to the material. A painting is a unique object that forms a visible bridge between the present and the past through the artist’s brushstrokes. The material connects modern man with the historical creator. But does the meaning of art depend only on it?

Also read this report: ‘It’s so well made I do not have to see the original’

Art is important because it touches us emotionally and we attach symbolic, ritual, personal or cultural meanings to it. Moreover, as a result of changes in the spirit of the times over the centuries, works of art acquire a different meaning because their function changes. Although an altarpiece, which we now value as a work of art in a museum, is original in material, it has completely withdrawn from its original function, the religious rituals in which it once played a role. Works of art thus have a wealth of meanings , which are changing, are conceptual and not all can be captured in one material version. In short, the ‘authenticity’ of works of art is complex and extends far beyond just the material. We therefore make the object enormously short by reducing its significance to brushstrokes alone.

Let’s try to let go of our obsession with the unique work of art

When we let go of our current idea of ​​the importance of the ‘authenticity’ of the material, the possibilities for Dutch Heritage Amsterdam become clear. For the lightning-fast development in 3D scanning and printing makes it possible to imitate works of art precisely. The Spanish Factum Foundation, a foundation that specializes in creating three-dimensional art reproductions, combines these techniques with pictorial craftsmanship, making their reproductions of paintings difficult to distinguish from the originals even by experts at first glance. An exhibition consisting of 3D reproductions therefore does not impair the viewer experience and perception of the material.

Virtual restoration

3D printing allows the public to experience art in new ways. For example, in 2015, the Prado Museum in Madrid used reproductions of masterpieces from across Europe to allow visitors to touch paintings. This exhibition is so successful that it has been extended to 2023. In addition, 3D replicas can display works of art outside the museums where they are stored. An exact copy of the famous painting Lo Spasimo of Raphael can be admired in this way again in its original place, namely in the convent of Santa Maria dello Spasimo (Palermo, Italy).

Our own research into a sixteenth-century altarpiece that has been heavily overpainted over the centuries shows that 3D printing can be used to virtually restore works of art, eliminating the need for irreversible interference with the painting itself.

The Dutch Heritage Museum, which is not tied to a permanent collection and which focuses on international relations, now has the unique opportunity to break with the traditional view. It’s time for renewal. 3D printing makes it possible to unite artists and works of art around the world and show their (trans) cultural similarities and differences. That way we can learn more about ourselves and each other. So let’s try to let go of our obsession with the unique work of art. It is precisely by exhibiting a combination of original works and copies that we will appreciate works of art in more ways than ever before.

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