How the Smithsonian is using 3D scanning to make the past more accessible - Baltimore


May 27, 2015 11:40 am

How the Smithsonian is using 3D scanning to make the past more accessible

From archaeological finds to presidential busts, the Smithsonian's 3D program specialists explained their craft at a recent event in Baltimore.

A 3D-printed bust of President Obama.

(Photo courtesy of the White House)

The Smithsonian has three people working on 3D digitization, and a huge collection that includes about 138 million works of art, specimens and other pieces.

Within the huge institution, the effort to create more 3D scans and models of Smithsonian holdings is “really a grassroots effort,” 3D Program Officer Vincent Rossi said last Thursday at the Baltimore School for the Arts. He took the stage of the Mt. Vernon school’s stately auditorium for the latest edition of Talking Shop, organized by The Contemporary.

The small staff functions a lot like a startup, Rossi said. To make the most of their limited resources, they seek out different kinds of objects that represent a specific category of the institution’s holdings. That way, they can demonstrate how 3D scanning and printing is can benefit each department. They also use the experience to start creating ways to scale their workflow to fit that department’s needs.

“We’re trying to digitize objects that represent the breadth of the collections at the Smithsonian,” said Rossi’s fellow 3D Program Officer, Adam Metallo.

Don’t worry, though, they still have an awesome job.

There’s the 3D scan of a remnant from the Cassiopeia A supernova:

Then there was the time they got to go to Chile to scan the skeleton of a Rorqual whale, which was being recovered by paleontologists at a unique archaeological site known as Cerro Ballena. With the data, they’re working to make 3D-printed models of the archaeological dig sites.

“The scale down is a traditional technique for paleontologists,” Metallo said. “This is a great way to do that.”

Metallo and Rossi aren’t keeping the goods to themselves, either. The Smithsonian hosts an online portal for all of the scans that are produced, and features a 360-degree viewer made through AutoDesk that is still in beta.


Check out the portal

This being 2015, the team also brings 3D printing into their work. While Metallo admitted it would be really cool to 3D print the Hope Diamond, the technology isn’t there to scan it quite yet. So they started with presidents.

Rossi realized the power of 3D printing when the team scanned life-masks of Abraham Lincoln. Using laser-scan data from paintings and photography, they created 3D-print-ready models of the 16th president and of course printed them. Though they were using an advanced technological method to do it, the print made Lincoln seem more real, Rossi said.

“To connect with this larger than life figure on a human level — being able to hold it in your hands,” Rossi said. “That was really big for us.”

They didn’t need old portraits for their next presidential print. Late last year, the team went to the White House to produce a scan of President Barack Obama. They collected data on Obama’s bust using a giant light stage comprised of LEDs and GoPro cameras.

The result was billed as the most accurate 3D model of a head of state ever created. Metallo believes it will help future generations to better understand what Obama looked like.

“It’s not taking away the past,” he said of the team’s work. “It’s making the past more accessible.”

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Organizations: Smithsonian


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