Nov.13, 2013

With 99% of its 137 million objects kept behind the scenes or in a faraway museum, the Smithsonian Institution is launching a new 3D scanning and printing initiative to make more of its massive collection accessible to schools, researchers and the public worldwide.

A team of technicians has begun creating 3D models of some key objects in the Smithsonian, the world's largest museum complex. Some of the first 3D 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.

AP Photo/Smithsonian Institution

The end of "do not touch"

The Smithsonian is launching a new 3D viewer online Wednesday to let people explore and manipulate museum objects in their own homes. For example, 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 3D 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 3D scan of a Chinese Buddha statue allows the user to examine and unravel a story carved in its surface.

The data can also be downloaded, recreated with a 3D printer and used to help illustrate lessons in history, art and science in schools.

With the cost of 3D scanning and printing equipment declining in recent years, museums find there's a new opportunity for them 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, said Smithsonian digitization director Gunter Waibel.

The Smithsonian officials are working to raise $15 million going forward to move the 3D 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 3D technology and even make their own 3D prints of museum objects in a "maker lab." The Smithsonian is also experimenting with new projections of augmented reality with 3D imagery to help bring dinosaurs or historical figures to life in an exhibit.

Other museums have already started digitizing artworks or making 3D scans of sculptures. In New York, digital guru Sree Sreenivasan was hired this year as the first chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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