The Smithsonian is going 3D

The Smithsonian has unveiled its X 3D Collection along with a new 3-D explorer in an effort to make museum collections and scientific specimens easier for the public to access and study. 

According to Günter Waibel, director of the Institution’s Digitization Program Office, the Smithsonian X 3D explorer and initial collection of scanned objects are the first step in showcasing how 3D technology is capable of transforming the work of the Smithsonian, as well as other museums and research institutions.

More specifically, the above-mentioned X 3D Collection features objects from the Smithsonian that highlight different applications of 3D capture and printing, along with digital delivery methods for 3D data in research, education and conservation including:

  • The Wright Flyer (National Air and Space Museum): The 3D scan of the Wright Flyer allows users to explore the fine details of the artifact, providing a window into the Wright’s inventive genius and understanding of the principles of flight.
  • Cassiopeia A Supernova Remnant (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory): This multi-wavelength 3D reconstruction of Cassiopeia A uses X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and optical data from NOAO’s 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak and the Michigan-Dartmouth-MIT 2.4-meter telescope.
  • Fossil Whale (National Museum of Natural History): Smithsonian paleontologists and 3D staff conducted a time-sensitive documentation of the skeletons from the site (Chile) and captured essential data about the arrangement and condition of the skeletons before they were removed and the site was paved over.
  • Cosmic Buddha (Freer and Sackler galleries): To study such low-relief compositions, scholars have traditionally made rubbings with black ink on white paper, which give stronger contrast to the outlines. 3D scanning, used with a wide variety of imaging techniques, can give even more clarity to the designs.

To view these and other objects scanned using 3D technology, the Smithsonian and San Francisco-based Autodesk created the Smithsonian X 3D explorer which allows users to easily rotate models, take accurate measurements between points and adjust color and lighting. The explorer is also equipped with a storytelling feature, enabling Smithsonian curators and educators to create guided tours of the models.

In addition to viewing objects using the explorer, the raw 3D data itself will be made available for downloading and printing, both for personal and noncommercial use. Teachers and other educators can use the data to create realistic 3D models of these objects for use in the classroom.

It should be noted that additional support for the Smithsonian’s 3D efforts was provided by 3D Systems, which helped scan, design and print objects from several Smithsonian museums, including one of the large fossilized whales found in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

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