Is 3D Printing: A Game Changer?

The Buddha Vairochana is an impressive, monument-sized limestone figure that looms over gallery space in the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian. If you are able to get close, you can detect (although barely) an intricate illustration of early Chinese script dating back to the Sui and Tang dynasties, depicting early visions of the universe and the Buddhist cosmos. For centuries, scholars have scrutinized these engravings, making rubbings with black ink on white paper to bring more contrast, but the results lack clarity. Within the last year, however, the “laser cowboys” in the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office unveiled a new, 3D view of the cosmic Buddha, “unwrapping” the engravings into a flat map, allowing us to view the carvings with more clarity, and consequently, offering new understanding of them. Alongside the cosmic Buddha, the small team has begun creating 3D prints of a number of key artifacts in the Smithsonian’s collection, including the Wright brother’s first airplane, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, a Revolutionary War gunboat, and a set of real life masks of Abraham Lincoln’s face. They are touchable, in some cases wearable, pieces of history many people rarely get to see, much less have access to.

Last week I attended the first-ever Smithsonian X 3D conference. Technology enthusiasts, government liaisons, journalists, and curious spectators registered for a two-day 3D-a-thon that promised to showcase the advances, challenges, and future of 3D. The event kicked off with a surprise launch of the 3D Explorer, an online tool that allows users to load 3D images, change and manipulate image properties, take measurements, and embed and share their work (via social media, e-mail, or in select software platforms). The project is in beta, but the 3D team encourages users to download and play with the explorer and give feedback on the test version (or report any bugs). They have daringly marketed this tool as the end of the “do not touch” barriers preventing patrons from handling and intimately investigating precious artifacts.

As consumers of culture, the benefits of 3D imaging and printing are self-evident. The physical boundaries that protect artifacts and form our common museum experiences are eliminated by 3D imaging. According to Gunter Waibel, director of the Digitization Program Office, “Historically, museums have just tried to push data out. It’s been a one-way street. Now museums are really rethinking their relationship with their audience, and they’re trying to empower their audiences to help them along whatever learning journey they are on.” The 3D Explorer, for instance, allows a user to virtually board a Revolutionary War gunboat, take a guided tour, measure the size and circumference of the deck and even manipulate the image, including the lighting source, surface properties and color.

For historians, 3D imaging and printing provides an invaluable tool for teaching and storytelling. Most history professionals use material culture in the classroom in some form, but they rarely have access to physical artifacts. 3D imagery, while not replacing the utility and value of the artifact itself, offers a complimentary approach to viewing and interpreting objects. In the case of the Buddha Vairochana, 3D imaging actually enhances our ability to view intricate details on an object that are too difficult to discern with the naked eye.

Looking toward the future, the Smithsonian is hoping to move 3D capture from “pilot to program, and unleash the full potential of 3D technology in the museum and research community.” This includes reimagining the museum space and the type of collection materials exhibits it hosts. “Wouldn’t it be great to have Abraham Lincoln walking around talking to people?” Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough remarked in his opening speech. “It can be done.”

The plan is ambitious, considering the daunting 137 million artifacts in the Smithsonian collection alone, but as Waibel pointed out, “this future is not our birthright—we will have to earn it.” Earning it, as Waibel suggests, includes financial investment and a significant growth in dedicated staff. Clough challenged the museum community to build upon the Smithsonian’s pilot project, quoting David Lloyd George who once said, “Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.”

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