Star Wars, Museums and the Ethics of 3D Replication

Advances in digital technologies in both 3D and visual effects are developing at a rapid pace, and are now able to resurrect deceased celebrities to play a role in films after death. Most recently, Peter Cushing’s performance as Grand Moff Tarkin was digitally recreated for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Although movie producers received permission from Cushing’s estate to create this performance, it was not an especially controversial decision. When this movie first came out, what I most remember are conversations with friends about trying to spot the CGI elements in this 3D rendering is. Are they good enough to fool the audience into thinking they are the real thing?

Museums have also begun experimenting with these digital advances in working with their collections. While 3D technologies are more commonly seen and talked about in the movie industry, they offer intriguing possibilities for future museum work. In collaboration with members of the Dakl’aweidí clan of the Tlingit community and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, museum staff scanned and replicated a Killer Whale crest hat (Kéet S’aaxw) as part of a repatriation project (Hollinger et. al. 2013). Crest objects, like this hat, are sacred and also contain intangible properties: stories and songs that certain clans have the rights to display and share. The original crest hat was returned to the community in 2005, and the 3D scan and replica were created years later in 2010. For Tlingit community members, the scan provides a back-up, a digital archive of important objects to protect them from loss, and new replicas can be made for other members of the community to use. For museum staff, the replica provides a way to visually show the public evidence of a repatriation to be able to talk about why it is important. Working in together in collaboration, this project provides an example of the benefits 3D technologies can bring, particularly when the creation of replicas is done in careful discussion and with respect from both sides.

The original Kéet S’aaxw and replica hat together for the first time (Hollinger, et. al. 2013).

Many museums are now publishing their 3D scans online, which opens the possibility for people with 3D printers to create copies of collections to keep in their homes. This democratization of knowledge is in line with museum mission statements, but it comes with its own issues. Will museums become facilitators of mass reproductions of the art and ethnographic collections they hold? (Lichty 2015) What does this mean for Tlingit clan leaders, who want to maintain the intellectual rights they have over their cultural heritage? Will 3D scans make it easier for outsiders to exploit their culture for monetary gain through mass-produced replicas? And importantly, when a 3D scan is made of an object, who controls the bundles of intangible knowledge, stories and meanings that it carries?

In the Star Wars universe, similar questions have also surfaced following the tragic loss of Carrie Fisher. Fans have been concerned that Disney will decide to use digital technologies to recreate General Organa in order to complete the current trilogy of movies. In fact, this rumor caused so much public turmoil that the company created a press release confirming that they had no plans to digitally resurrect her performance (Disney 2017).

I think the same worries about using technology to artificially create another Princess Leia performance should also be considered by museum staff when creating 3D scans of collections. For me, Carrie Fisher was more than just Princess Leia; the outpouring of stories following her passing about her sharp critiques of Hollywood, the support she gave other actresses, and her unfailing wit and sense of humor are all intangible pieces of who she was, and which are nevertheless still connected to her performance as Princess Leia. Some of that intangible importance can be preserved and communicated through digital technologies. But it is also important to me that something is lost in her passing, that cannot be easily replicated. Just as I would want Cushing and Fisher’s families to have a say over creating digital versions of them in movies, I also want Tlingit clan leaders to be a part of determining the reproduction of their own cultural heritage. The rights to make a reproduction – whether it is a performance of a deceased actor or a sacred object in a museum collection – should be negotiated, not assumed, and done with care. And we should be open to the possibility that they shouldn’t be done at all.

Works Cited:

Industrial Light and Magic. 2017. “Behind the Magic: Recreating Tarkin for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Accessed April 5, 2018.

Disney, “A Statement Regarding New Rumors,” January 13, 2017. Accessed April 5, 2018.

Hollinger, R. Eric, Jr Edwell John, Harold Jacobs, Lora Moran-Collins, Carolyn Thome, Jonathan Zastrow, Adam Metallo, Günter Waibel, and Vince Rossi. 2013. “Tlingit- Smithsonian Collaborations with 3D Digitization of Cultural Objects.” Museum Anthropology Review 7 (1-2): 201–53.

Lichty, Patrick. 2015. “The Digital: A False Division?” Public Art Dialogue 5(1): 95–103.


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