Smithsonian X 3D Collection Brings Historical Objects to Life

The Smithsonian has launched an online collection called the Smithsonian X 3D. The site includes a browser-based 3D viewer that allows users to experience objects that have been scanned, such as artifacts and fossils, up close. In addition, users can download related files in order to print models using their own 3D printer. The project supports 19 museums, 9 research centers and the National Zoo in its goal to expand Smithsonian digital assets.

“Dubbed Smithsonian X 3D, the collection not only includes a browser-based 3D viewer that lets you get up close with the objects it’s already scanned — everything from fossils to historical artifacts like the Wright Flyer — but also lets users download the necessary files to print an actual model on your own 3D printer at home,” reports Engadget.

“Smithsonian X 3D launches a set of use cases which apply various 3D capture methods to iconic collection objects, as well as scientific missions,” explains Günter Waibel, director of the Digitization Program Office. “These projects indicate that this new technology has the potential not only to support the Smithsonian mission, but to transform museum core functions. Researchers working in the field may not come back with specimens, but with 3D data documenting a site or a find.”

The 3D data can be used by educators and students to enhance their own understanding. However, the volume of the collection brings challenges.

“The Smithsonian digitization challenge and opportunity can be measured by the total number of collection items: at 137 million objects, artworks and specimens, capturing the entire collection at a rate of 1 item per minute would take over 260 years of 24/7 effort,” notes Waibel on the Smithsonian X 3D site. “At the present moment, the Smithsonian has prioritized the digitization of about 10 percent of its collections for digitization. To rise to this challenge, the Digitization Program Office is promoting rapid capture photography workflows for two-dimensional collections, and exploring innovations to speed up the capture of our three-dimensional collections, preferably in 3D.”

Interestingly, this project could bring 99 percent of the Smithsonian collection to the virtual world.

According to Waibel: “With only 1 percent of collections on display in Smithsonian museum galleries, digitization affords the opportunity to bring the remaining 99 percent of the collection into the virtual light. All of these digital assets become the infrastructure which will allow not just the Smithsonian, but the world at large to tell new stories about the familiar, as well as the unfamiliar, treasures in these collections.”