Smithsonian X 3D

A 3.332Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

In 1985 I attended the ACSM/ ASPRS annual conference held in Washington, DC. After returning home to Oklahoma I remarked to my wife that the Smithsonian museums in DC would be great for our three children. Little did I know that less than two years later, I would be laid off and faced with the prospect of moving to stay in surveying. We ended up moving to Maryland and for the first several months I would take the kids downtown on Saturday for the luxury of spending the better part of an entire day on one floor of the many museums. Those of you who have visited DC and tried to see all the museums in a few days know how significant this luxury is.

Arguably one of the premier facilities in the world, the 17 museums that now comprise the Smithsonian Institution (SI) hosted 31 million people last year. This leaves around 300 million US citizens who were unable to visit. So, how to share the collection of 137 million objects with people who never visit the museums?

Last fall, and thanks to Michael Raphael of Direct Dimensions in Baltimore, I received an invitation to attend a symposium about the Smithsonian efforts to digitize its vast collections. In opening remarks, Gnter Waibel, the director of the Digitization Program Office, described the effort as a 167-year-old institution meeting 21st century technology, and revolutionizing the core mission of the SI by telling the story using 3D data. But that’s not all that’s going on.

Previously, if someone wanted to perform research on something in the collection, they had to physically travel to the museum where the research objects were housed. Now, with the Internet and a 3D viewer developed over an eight-month period by Autodesk, researchers will be able to measure, rotate, zoom in, create cross-sections and accentuate textures. Researchers all over the world are using laser scanning, close-range photogrammetry and CAT scanning to develop 3D models of all manner of objects. With the Internet, this research can now be shared.

Peter Jakab, the associate director and chief curator of the Air & Space Museum, discussed the original Wright Flyer in the collection and told how Oliver Franks, in 1948, described the 1903 airplane as the equivalent of the original first wheel. Jakab demonstrated how the digitization of the Flyer allows the "unpacking" of all the parts of the plane. Particularly interesting is the engine assembly. The unpacking is possible because, during restoration, enough information was gathered in two days of scanning to allow the model to be created.

Keith Wilson, the curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer/Sackler Galleries, gave a fascinating account of a sixth-century Chinese statue, the Cosmic Buddha. He said it had been stuck in a corner, with only a quarter truly visible, but with the model is now viewable from all angles. Digital photography enabled us to "see into the shadows," whereas before, if something in a photograph was black or white, no more information was available. Previously, to study engraved markings on an object, an ink on paper rubbing was made. Very crude, this method yielded only limited information. Scanning opened up a whole new world because, by digitally altering the angle of the light, subtleties that were never noticed are now revealed. It was heartwarming to hear Wilson describe his elation at being able to see aspects of the Buddha that he never knew existed.

Jennifer Jones, the chair of armed forces history at the Museum of American History, showed the Gunboat Philadelphia, sunk by the British in Lake Champlain shortly after the Revolutionary War began. The boat was recovered intact in 1935 and the model shows the 24-pound cannonball–still lodged in the side of the boat–that sent it to the bottom.

Nick Pyenson, a geologist and curator of fossil marine mammals at the Museum of Natural History, provided an account of five-million year old whale fossils that had been discovered during a road widening project in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The team had a very short time window to gather data on the 40 whales and with the support of FARO was able to fly in with an arm and a scanner and get the job done.

This was the first "museum folks" event I had ever attended, and it was cool to see the passion these people have for their jobs. The purpose of a museum has always been to preserve and share, but now, with digitization and the Internet, sharing has taken on a whole new meaning. Researchers from all over the globe can perform basic research from the comfort of their office, wherever it may be. In today’s world, some museums have struggled to remain relevant, and indeed, some within the National Science Foundation said the project would destroy the very thing it was seeking to sustain.

In his editorial in the February Smithsonian Magazine, SI Secretary Wayne Clough, who also provided welcoming comments at the 3D event, discussed the museum’s Abraham Lincoln life mask, taken just two months before his assassination. It seems rather obvious to me, especially with the rise of 3D printing, that this is a way of allowing a student studying the Civil War a way to hold something in their hands that previously would have been impossible.

The organizers of the event are confident that, by sharing information worldwide, discoveries will increase. They acknowledge that costs will need to come down, for instance, the two days of scanning of the Wright Flyer resulted in six weeks of post-processing, but as we have seen in the scanning industry and technology in general, I’m confident that costs will come down. Even so, it is estimated that, with current technology, it would take 240 years to scan the entire SI collection.

I encourage you to visit, install the free viewer, and take spin thru the available models. For those of you with a 3D printer, ready-to-print models are available for downloading. To me, one of the coolest objects in the model collection is a wooden hat, made in 1900, belonging to the Tlingit Dakl’weidi (Killer Whale) clan of southeast Alaska. Interestingly, the tribe maintains strict control of the tribe’s artifacts, but realized that something like a fire could destroy the hat forever, so agreed to allow it to be scanned.

Marc Cheves is editor of the The American Surveyor.

A 3.332Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE