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Smithsonian makes push in 3-D imaging of artifacts

Published November 13, 2013 10:52 am

Online • Scanning, printing initiative will make massive trove more accessible.
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Washington • With most of its 137 million objects kept behind the scenes or in a faraway museum, the Smithsonian Institution is launching a new 3-D scanning and printing initiative to make more of its massive collection accessible to schools, researchers and the public.

A small team has begun creating 3-D models of some key objects that represent the breadth of the collection at the world's largest museum complex. Some of the first 3-D scans include the Wright brothers' first airplane, Amelia Earhart's flight suit, casts of President Abraham Lincoln's face during the Civil War and a Revolutionary War gunboat. Less familiar objects include a former slave's horn, a missionary's gun from the 1800s and a woolly mammoth fossil from the Ice Age. They are pieces of history some people may hear about but rarely see or touch.

Now the Smithsonian is launching a new 3-D viewer online to give people a closer look at artifacts in their own homes. The data can also be downloaded, re-created with a 3-D printer and used to help illustrate lessons in history, art and science in schools. While some schools might acquire 3-D printers for about $1,000, other users may examine the models on their computers.

Smithsonian digitization director Gunter Waibel said museums are working to redefine their relationship with audiences to become more interactive.

"Historically, museums have just tried to push data out. It's been a one-way street," he said. "Now museums are really rethinking their relationship with their audience, and they're trying to empower their audiences to help them along whatever learning journey they're on."

With the cost of 3-D scanning and printing equipment declining in recent years, Waibel said there's a new opportunity for museums to transform how they collect, curate and conserve artifacts and also how they educate. Three-dimensional models can help tell stories and create more engaging lessons, he said.

Smithsonian educators are building interactive tours to view 3-D models online. On the Wright Flyer aircraft from 1903, they have created hotspots to help explain its engine and wing design, and the user can rotate the object in all directions for a closer look.

With the Lincoln masks, the 3-D viewer allows the user to adjust lighting levels to see the aging of the president's face over the course of the war. And a 3-D scan of a Chinese Buddha statue allows the user to examine and unravel a story carved in its surface.

So far, the Smithsonian is devoting about $350,000 annually to 3-D digitization, with companies also donating equipment. But museum officials are working to raise $15 million going forward to move the 3-D lab from a suburban warehouse in Maryland to a new innovation center planned for the National Mall. There, the public could see some of the latest 3-D technology and even make their own 3-D prints of museum objects in a "maker lab." Within minutes, a 3-D printer can create a plastic replica of an object by reproducing the digital model layer by layer.

It's not clear how long it will take to create a large 3-D collection. The pace will depend on funding and scaling up techniques the 3-D lab has just begun creating, officials said.