Planet Earth

3D Models of Museum Artifacts Virtually Put History at Your Fingertips

D-briefBy Breanna DraxlerNov 14, 2013 8:03 PM

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What's the problem with visiting a museum? Those pesky reminders that you can't touch anything. But now the world's largest museum and research complex is changing all that.

This week the Smithsonian launched the beta version of its new 3D modeling program. The X 3D Explorer

 scans artifacts in the museums' collections to make interactive, digital versions that are accessible online. Not only can you inspect the items from any angle, and zoom in for more detail, but you can even print out scale models. That's right---those of you with 3D printers can make your very own Alaskan Dakl’weidi clan leader's killer whale hat

.

In the past few months, the Smithsonian has digitized 20 artifacts from among the 137 million in its museum collections. This number may seem low, but keep in mind that the process is pretty involved. With a fossilized wooly mammoth, for example, researchers had to scan the skeleton from 60 different angles to capture all its anatomical details. Forbes puts this into perspective,

If the Smithsonian were able to digitize an object every minute, it would still take 270 years of working around the clock every day to capture the entire archives in 3D.

Analyzing Artifacts in 3D

Beyond artifactual figurines, the 3D archive initiative has some real educational aims. Digitization director Günter Waibel describes

 how the program can overcome some of the space limitations of physical museums:

With only 1% of collections on display in Smithsonian museum galleries, digitization affords the opportunity to bring the remaining 99% of the collection into the virtual light.

If now-extinct animals don't do it for you, the collection of three-dimensional digital artifacts also includes plenty of stuff for history buffs, like the Wright brothers' plane, a gunboat from the Revolutionary War, and Amelia Earhart's flight suit. Plus the digitization team

plans to archive a few dozen more digital artifacts every year. And you can touch them all you want at Smithsonian's interactive online gallery

.

Image credits: Smithsonian X 3D

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