Smithsonian building archive of printable 3D scans

The Smithsonian, the world's largest museum, is planning on producing 3D scans of its collection and making them freely available to the public to print out at home on their 3D printers (or incorporate into their virtual worlds). CNet's Daniel Terdiman has the story:

Update: Sarah Taylor Sulick from the Smithsonian sez, "Unfortunately we have no plans to make 3D scans of our collection freely available for the public to print. The CNET story is a bit misleading on that point. Our 3-D team mentioned that we COULD go there theoretically, but as of right now it is not part of our plan. The reality is also that we have 137M objects in our collection and only 2 people working on this project. So we are no where near being able to scan everything and essentially never will be."

Now, with that high-end scanner, as well as less expensive tools that include normal digital cameras and freely available cloud-based digitization software, Metallo and his fellow 3D digitization coordinator Vince Rossi are slowly setting out to begin building a new Smithsonian digital archive. They hope this initiative will eventually lead to scores of 3D printed exhibits, as well as countless 3D models that could theoretically be used in the museums, in schools, or just about anywhere people have an interest in the Smithsonian's vast physical holdings...

Metallo and Rossi's goal is clear: they want to build a large collection of 3D scanned objects and archaeological sites that can support the entire Smithsonian complex. They've got technology on their side--with minimally invasive laser scanners they can capture the geometry of just about any object or site with accuracy down to the micron level.

But their resources are few, and the two told CNET that they have to be smart about the projects they choose to digitize. They have to know that their work is going to tell a story in a new way or give researchers new tools in order to justify spending the time it takes to do the work.

Smithsonian turns to 3D to bring collection to the world (via /.)

(Image: Red Eye on Demand/Smithsonian)


  1. Sounds awesome as long as they’re made of non-toxic biodegradable bioplastics so they break down easily in the environment once discarded and don’t end up adding to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or its Atlantic equivalent.

  2. This is fantastic, and needs to be crowdsourced.
    Imagine have curators go through entire museums vast stored collections and digitizing everything and then putting them up into virtual exhibitions, which I’m guessing would be easier to maintain, swapping about and contextualizing than their physical counterparts.
    And then of course – remixing.

  3. It is a sad sad world we live in…
    1st post is concerned for the environment.  A good thing.
    2nd post is fully of hope this might put culture back in the peoples hands.  A god thing.
    My post (3rd from my POV)
    Well shit… I can see the great great great grandchildren (or legal trusts) of sculptors  suing the crap out of them for copyright infringement and denying them money that could be made because they deserve it from something hundreds of years old.

  4. Virtual museums?  Let’s think bigger and in real life.  Once the scans are shared and once 3d printing is more widely available, refined and cheaper, I could print off my own Venus de Milo.  

  5. :(

    On the bright side, the prospect of actually doing this was probably never considered until now. And honestly, at the moment, it doesn’t really make sense to spend a lot of resources doing this. But once 3-D printing takes off more, there’s hope.

  6. QUICK! We need a LAW passed to stop this! The poor companies that make a living from reproducing statue busts will go out of business if these enter the public domain!

  7. Smithsonian 3D guys here.

    While making these scans available for printing isn’t part of our current strategy, we are looking into a 3D viewer that makes use of webgl so you’ll be able to view, interact, measure 3D models right in your browser with no plugin.

    The real power of 3D for museums will be the digital models themselves, not the 3D printed replicas. Having a 3D digital surrogate of a fossil or bone allows researchers to share content around the world while providing new tools for measurement and exploration- comparative analysis, surface area on complex organic shapes, etc.  We recently worked with one of our scientists in Chile who uncovered a enormous prehistoric whale graveyard. We recorded 3D digital scans of the fossils before they were fully excavated to preserve as much key information about how the whales died
    We invite you to follow our adventures on
    Facebook or Twitter (@3D_Digi_SI)

    1. Congratulations on the great work. Speaking as one whose family donated some works to the Smithsonian I would like to mention a few points.We donated a collection of foot long 19th century photographic prints but they were scanned at only 1400 pixels wide. Very nice job but wish I could zoom in to more resolution.There is a beautiful web search interface at
      But it is very inefficient if you want to download photos, compare them, etc. I had to write a series of perl scrips to download a few hundred photos actually because it was taking hours by hand.

      No way to download the metadata for one or more pieces without screen scraping somehow.

      So while your work on a viewer is quite intriguing I hope you don’t spend too much time to make it too beautiful. Open REST APIs and tools to select and download multiple models or pieces of models would be more useful, unless lack of a 3D viewer is a serious problem for scholars today of which I was not aware.

      I think you should also release full scanned data and not keep it to yourselves. Curation may be important but at this stage, building interest in your project will leverage your available resources. You can release successive versions as you improve data. The data will not be damaged by allowing many people to see it. So curation is important, but the idea of limiting access is strange to me. I cannot I’m sorry at all understand why you would not release the 3D data if it is good enough to print from already. It is not like the data must be protected by boilerplate like that stuck into the metadata of each of the photographs we donated, “Access is by appointment only, Monday through Thursday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Please contact the Archives to make an appointment:“.

      Pardon me please if you have already thought deeply on this. But I think you should try to minimize barriers to obtaining data, maximize transmission speed, provide all models and metadata, and encourage third party collaboration. It seems that bittorrent would be a perfect distribution method as it can easily handle models that are hundreds of megabytes each. It is perfect for this kind of thing. Otherwise no amount of bandwidth will ever be enough if people actually use your service in numbers.

      An open interface will drive other parties to build the viewers. For example you could build your own system like the BBC tried, but  all you need to do is make a repository that is very quick and easy to access. Maybe like arxiv, but all you really need to provide is a REST API really. If you just provide high quality data others will build things like Google Earth mashups, open source based search and server tools, educational software, local collections that run on Macs and PCs and can check repositories for updates even those on the LAN or elsewhere, search engines across multiple databases, etc. 

      Well I certainly appreciate your work and hope you will take this constructively. For what it’s worth I made an art museum called the Orb Gallery in 3D on NCSA Mosaic in about 1994-5 (illustrations were mounted in frames hung on walls in 3D gallery halls hyperlinked together), and an art exhibition in a 3D  VRML viewer (Cosmo I think? You would get shot into orbit and spun around to see the next image which was fun) running on a Silicon Graphics machine around 95-96 IIRC, so you see I really like the idea of putting art collections on the latest 3D technology personally. But that old webserver is no longer online (the server got recycled, the hard disk is in a pile of old hard disks), my copy of Shade II I used won’t work on my current Mac, the VRML file is long gone, the viewer also long defunct, any new viewers won’t shoot you into orbit like that one did anyway, etc. I was just an amateur but these are not things that should be able to happen to the Smithsonian. You have to understand that any viewer software is going to be of a limited lifetime and data needs to be made as available as possible. Finally you can have all the data in the world but it should be faster than say ibiblio or the internet archive. It should be utterly screaming fast since that will be barely enough.

      When I found out the Smithsonian had our photographs online it was really cool but then I thought it was strange that it is so hard to download collection metadata and images, and hope you could spend more time on making high quality models, open APIs and in general guiding the development of this area, instead of putting a lot of time into a viewer that could be built by others. Good luck and eagerly awaiting to see the fruits of your labors. 

      1. p.s. I would like it if kids could view these photo collections by downloading a zip of many photos and viewing them in a comic viewer like Sequential for the Mac. Or an improved version of it that showed info about the photos when you hit a special key. I just tried it with some photos I downloaded laboriously from the Smithsonian and they are quite beautiful.

  8. All praise to the Smithsonian for at the least beginning the process. Should some of the models be shared, rather than rote mimicry, I expect amazing remixes, as culture is wont to do. Beyond replication, it’ll also be a great boon to preservation, as such detailed 3D scans will facilitate repairs in the event of damage, even full restoration in the event of catastrophic damage &, in the event of a civilization-rocking cataclysm, perhaps a better chance of not needing to start all over.

    And hell, make me a copy of Archie Bunker’s armchair for good measure.

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