Smithsonian Brings Historic Artifacts to Life Through 3D Printing

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The Smithsonian Institution is leading the way for major museums going digital with the 3D archive of historic artifacts available for viewing and printing it launched on Nov. 13. From supernovas to a sculpture of President Lincoln’s head, a variety of historic objects are available for download in the Smithsonian’s X 3D Explorer web portal — currently in the beta version.

The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office scanned more than 20 artifacts for interactive viewing with technology provided by Autodesk and 3D Systems. After registering on the X 3D site, anyone can view and download the 3D images for personal or educational use by enabling Web GL, a JavaScript API that renders 3D graphics in a browser, and then print them on a 3D printer.

Some of the artifacts available include the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer, China’s ancient Cosmic Buddha, the American Revolution’s Gunboat Philadelphia, and fossils of an extinct dolphin found in Panama. The 3D-program director, Günter Waibel, emphasized the importance of sharing these artifacts internationally to those unable to travel to the Smithsonian’s museums in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

“No technology is ever going to replace the feeling of seeing an original artifact in person. But this technology gives us more ways to learn about our collection and tell our stories in new ways to more than just museum visitors,” Waibel told Mashable in an email.

Museum curators nominated objects for the 3D archive which they believed would be most beneficial for education, research and conservation purposes. The Smithsonian’s on-site 3D rendering of the Liang Bua cave in Indonesia helped researchers conserve the archaeological site known for the discovery of the fossil species Homo floresiensis, or the “hobbit” of human evolution, according to Forbes.

“Other museums have been experimenting with 3D scanning and printing of objects like large stone sculptures. But this is the first time, to our knowledge, that a museum has provided data at this level of quality and has applied the technology to as wide of a variety of objects as we have,” Waibel told Mashable.

Image: Smithsonian Institution

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