3D Printing and Scanning Revolutionizing Museums

I was watching the 3rd and final installment of the Night at the Museum the other day where the exhibits literally spring to life.  This type of thing may not be too far away thanks to 3D printing and scanning technology.  The Smithsonian Museums already have a large amount of items scanned and available publicly as part of the Smithsonian X 3D project.  The Smithsonian even 3D scanned President Obama to create a life mask and 3D printed bust as part of his display for the National Portrait Gallery.

If you’ve ever been to DC you know the Smithsonian Museums are gigantic, but what you might not know is there are 137 million artifacts that you don’t see that are stashed away in warehouses or loaned to faraway museums.  Only about 1% of the holdings are on public display!  You may also not even be able to make it to DC to see the things on public display in person.  What 3D scanning and printing can do it make all these object instantly available to researchers and your casual citizen.  Some of the items already available include the Wright brothers’ first airplane, a Chinese Buddha statue, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, casts of President Abraham Lincoln’s face during the Civil War and .  The Smithsonian is devoting about $350,000 annually to 3D digitization, with companies also donating equipment, but museum officials are working to raise $15 million going forward with museum officials making it a high priority.

The Smithsonian isn’t the only one doing this type of work.  People in the art world are 3D scanning Rembrandts and Van Goghs while others are using 3D scanning and printing to study dinosaur bones in ways that prevent damaging the original specimens and provide inexpensive replicas.  It could revolutionize education being able to deliver custom interactive fossil models for pennies, allowing educators to provide both a cheaper and more interactive experience.  It’s also a worldwide trend with equipment suppliers like Artec backing museum scanning projects in Europe.  We’ve also written in the past about CyArk preserving whole buildings around the world.  There’s also a “home brew” version of this trend, from people making 3D models with sculpture pictures and AutoDesk 123D Catch to people museum scanning using the now defunct Google Glass glasses.

Of course 3D printing itself can be museum worthy with a 3D printed gun being put on display at one museum.  Other places are displaying 3D printed sculptures with 3D printing becoming the medium for artists to express themselves.  It’s all part of the reinvention of the museum experience, going from static displays dark halls to electronic interactive wonderlands.  Of course there may come a day when all this technology nearly makes going to the museum itself obsolete if you can see and touch everything in your own home.  I suppose there’s a always a place for seeing the “original”, but the day is coming when you will not just spend that rainy Saturday at your local museum, but any museum you want!


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