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Smithsonian making 3D models of items from its collection


March 1, 2012

Top half of 3D printed Thomas Jefferson statue (Photo: RedEye on Demand/Smithsonian/StudioEIS)

Top half of 3D printed Thomas Jefferson statue (Photo: RedEye on Demand/Smithsonian/StudioEIS)

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What do you do when you're the world's largest museum but can display only two percent of the 137 million items in your collection (a mere 2.75 million) at any given time? In an effort to get more of their treasures into the public eye, specialists at the Smithsonian Institution's 19 collective museums and galleries hit upon the solution of digitizing their collection and 3D printing key models and displays suitable for traveling exhibitions. It's a tall order, but one that's sure to give the rapidly blooming business of additive manufacturing a huge boost.

In the past, whenever curators wanted to duplicate an object, they turned to traditional rubber molds and plaster casts. Now, with the Smithsonian's budding digitization initiative coming up to speed, teams can deploy expensive minimally-invasive laser scanners to generate virtual models of items in the collection with micron-level accuracy. Large additive manufacturing companies, such as RedEye on Demand, can then take those files and generate actual physical replicas suitable for display or loan to other museums, or even schools. The savings on insurance premiums alone could go a long way toward defraying the cost of the massive scanning project.

The program's two co-coordinators, Adam Metallo and Vincent Rossi, both with fine art backgrounds, began at the museum as model makers. Eventually they managed to secure a grant for a 3D scanner which they knew could generate far better models when teamed with a quality 3D printer. A recent effort resulted in what the Smithsonian calls the "largest 3D printed museum quality historical replica" in the world - a statue of Thomas Jefferson identical to the one on display at Jefferson's home, Monticello.

"Our mission," Rossi told SPAR, "is to digitize these huge collections in 3D - everything from insects to aircraft. Our day-to-day job is essentially trying to figure out how to actually accomplish that." They'll certainly have their hands full - the museums' collections literally fill acres of storage space in several facilities scattered around the region.

Unfortunately, funding for the project is still scarce, so Metallo and Rossi split their time between digitizing artifacts with laser or CT scanners (or open-source cloud-based digitization software and standard digital cameras) and touting their services to the museum's many researchers, curators and conservators, as well as potential corporate sponsors, hoping to drum up support.

"The one resource we have plenty of is amazing content," Rossi mused, "and along with that comes frustrating problems for us, but they're potentially interesting problems for the industry. How do we take 3D digitization and take it to the Smithsonian scale? We're at the ground floor of trying to understand that."

Indeed, one major issue with archival scans is how to store the digital files so that they'll be accessible decades into the future, when formats will surely have changed. With millions upon millions of items yet to be scanned, it appears we'll just have to wait to see how things shape up on that front.

Rossi and Metallo will report on their Smithsonian work at SPAR International 2012, April 15-18, in Houston.

Source: SPAR Point Group via CNET

About the Author
Randolph Jonsson A native San Franciscan, Randolph attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland before finding his way to the film business. Eventually, he landed a job at George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic, where he worked on many top-grossing films in both the camera and computer graphics departments. A proud member of MENSA, he's passionate about technology, optimal health, photography, marine biology, writing, world travel and the occasional, well-crafted gin and tonic! All articles by Randolph Jonsson

Presenting a copy of a historically important item while on a road tour is different from viewing pictures of the same on web site in what way? Why waste the time, energy and money on one when the other is just as good?


What a curious plan. Digitizing sculpture seems like an obvious move. But then to limit the availability of the 3D model? Why bother digitizing it at all? Just leave it in the basement, someday someone will find it. Perhaps this has something to do with IP law, who knows. These guys are trying to figure out how the file will be read 50 years from now, but they don't know what to do with it tomorrow.



Too many times I have photographed an awesome scene only to be disappointing by the loss of grandeur of the item or moment when displayed on a screen or printed out. I imagine 3D cameras make up for this a little but nothing beats a full size replica other than the real thing.


They should Kickstart this project. It will get a zillion in funding.

Peter Green

"Indeed, one major issue with archival scans is how to store the digital files so that they'll be accessible decades into the future, when formats will surely have changed."

Historians and archaeologists can't figure out how to create a communications medium that will last more than a few years? Pardon me while I giggle myself into a fit.


I have to agree with Eddie...they need to make the files available for download so that people with 3d printers or people willing to contract with someone with a 3d printer can have a replica of their very own....ok, for most of us in monochrome miniature plastic, but still!

As for IP, for the vast majority of the Smithsonian's collection, I would expect that copyright has long since expired....and the government's work (digitizing the collection) SHOULD fall under public domain, so I see no problem.

To defray the costs, I would be happy to pay a nominal fee for downloading a file.

Bryan Paschke


Now we can get our grubby mitts all over everything!

I was think that the bust looks almost as if it were made of chocolate....

Mr Stiffy
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