WASHINGTON -- With most of its 137 million objects kept behind the scenes or in a faraway museum, the Smithsonian Institution has launched a new 3-D 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 3-D models of some key objects representing 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.
The Smithsonian unveiled its new 3-D viewer online last month with technology from 3-D design firm AutoDesk to give people a closer look at artifacts in their own homes. The data can also be downloaded, recreated 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 users can rotate the object in all directions for a closer look.
With two 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 users 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 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. Other 3-D printers can reproduce objects in fiberglass, stone powder, ceramics, metal, rubber or other materials.
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. For other digitization efforts, the Smithsonian has engaged private partners and may even recruit volunteers to help. In total, the Smithsonian aims to eventually digitize 13 million objects in either 2-D or 3-D.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough has made digitization of artifacts a high priority since he arrived in 2008, but only more recently has 3-D scanning and printing become affordable. In an interview, he said museums face a greater challenge than the digitization of documents in libraries or archives because museum artifacts are often three-dimensional.
In a new e-book published last year, Clough called on museums to speed up their work to innovate and digitize collections to make artifacts accessible for a generation born in the Internet age.
A strategic plan in 1927 once called for the Smithsonian to have an office in every state so it could reach more people, though that never came to pass. Now with more digital outreach, the museums could actually realize that dream, Clough said, with the potential to reach billions of people.
"If we look at this issue of reaching people, it's more important than ever before," Clough said, noting that museum visitation among minorities is already low. For museums that received government funding to get their start, he said governments are now saying "what's next?"
"What's next is you have to reach the schools," Clough said. "Your relevance is going to be really based in part on how much you're contributing to the educational process for young people."
While posting data online to easily replicate important artifacts might lead to some attempts to counterfeit objects to sell, Smithsonian officials said the data is provided only for educational and noncommercial use.
Other museums have also started digitizing artworks or making 3-D 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.
Smithsonian officials said they are making a unique push into scanning a wide variety of 3-D objects, ranging from an ancient whale fossil found in Chile to a 3-D image of a supernova in space.
Some of the latest 3-D technology also could transform the experience of visiting a museum. The Smithsonian is experimenting with new projections of augmented reality with 3-D imagery to help bring dinosaurs or historical figures to life in an exhibit.
"Wouldn't it be great to have Abraham Lincoln walking around talking to people?" Clough said. "It can be done."