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Smithsonian to perform 3D scanning, printing on rarest artifacts

The public could soon see some of artifacts using the latest 3D technology and even make their own 3D prints of museum objects in a "maker lab."

WASHINGTON—With most of its 137 million objects kept behind the scenes or in a faraway museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex, 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 small team has begun creating 3D models of some key objects that represent the breadth of the collection at the Smithsonian. Some of the first 3D scans include the Wright brothers’ first airplane, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, and casts of President Abraham Lincoln’s face during the Civil War. 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.

On Wednesday, the museum is launching a new 3D viewer online to give people a closer look at artifacts in their own homes. The data can also be downloaded, recreated with a 3D printer and used to help illustrate lessons in history, art and science in schools. While some schools might acquire 3D 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.

Smithsonian educators are building interactive tours to view 3D 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 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.

So far, the Smithsonian is devoting about $350,000 annually to 3D digitization, with companies also donating equipment. But museum officials are working to raise $15 million going forward to move the 3D lab from a suburban warehouse in Maryland to a new innovation centre 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.” Within minutes, a 3D printer can create a plastic replica of an object by reproducing the digital model layer by layer.

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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