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Alexey Churchwell

Modern Meets History: 3D Printers and Museums

Many museum artifacts are old and fragile. That’s why they stay behind glass cages, or even tucked away in storage; it’s the only way to preserve them for generations to come. But now, with 3D printing, there might be a way to save these treasures and make the more accessible at the same time.

Copy and Print

A 3D printer can make a copy of pretty much anything, as long as you can get a scan of it. Granted, the material won’t be the same, but the shape and appearance will be nearly identical. And when it comes to sharing ancient artifacts with as many people as possible, that’s all you need.

The Smithsonian museum has 137 million objects. Only a fraction of these are actually on display; the rest are stored safely, and rotated out for viewings when appropriate. But if you don’t live near the Smithsonian, you might never get a chance to see the Wright brother’s first airplane or any of the other countless items stored in the museum.

Image credit Smithsonian X 3d

To make their inventory more accessible, the Smithsonian has started digitizing key objects, like the skeleton of a woolly mammoth or an ancient Buddha statue. These 3D files are available at the Smithsonian X 3D website; you can view the three dimensional models, or even print your own copy.

The online site also includes interactive tours for some of the artifacts. As you zoom in and rotate the object, you can read information about its creation and even see it in a simulated environment.

3D Printers and Schools

The Smithsonian’s digital collection also opens up another opportunity for for 3D printers: use in schools. With access to a printer and the files on the Smithsonian’s site, teachers can print models of important objects, allowing students to experience them first-hand. As printers become less expensive, more students might be able to touch a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln’s face or see a detailed skeleton of an early hominid.

The digital collection is far from finished; currently, the project is receiving around $350,000 annually from the Smithsonian, and more in outside donations. It could take years to build the collection up to a substantial size – but as 3D technology advances, so will the quality (and quantity) of the digital scans.


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