Raising the Bar: The Launch of Smithsonian’s X 3D

The bar has just been raised.

Someone had to step up and plant a stake in the ground, carrying the banner for the role of digital fabrication in Museums. Today, the Smithsonian has stepped into that role, with its rallying cry, “Smithsonian X 3D!”

Smithsonian X 3D, launched this morning at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. (online live today and tomorrow), is an online resource featuring use cases from across the Smithsonian’s collection of 137 million objects, artworks and specimens from across 19 museums, 9 research centers and the National Zoo. It is designed to share their collections with the public, researchers, curators, educators and conservators, to potentially, in their words, “transform museum core functions.” It makes the case, loud and clear, that digital representations of museum objects will provide access to those can’t visit in person while making those who can even MORE interested in viewing the original.

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And this is just a start. To make captures of their entire collection would take over 260 years (presuming you caught 1 item per minute, which is still really fast). So for now the Smithsonian has prioritized the digitization of about 10% of its collections for digitization. That is still a remarkable number – 13.7m items.

The web site offers video tours of objects, a section for educators promoting upcoming free curriculum (materials for teaching students about Lincoln’s life and desk masks), and personalization features for users. But the highlight for now is certainly access to the use case objects themselves:

The browser features fantastic tools for viewing and spinning the objects, as one might expect, but also reading annotations, making measurements, creating custom tours, changing lighting, reading related resources, and more, such as embedding a scene you create:

There have been a handful of museums that have used online repositories like Thingiverse to share a handful of objects from their collections. Those were radical next steps for museums. Technically it is easy to scan and then share links to .stl files. Politically, that is something else. But they did it – the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Asian Arts Museum of San Francisco and others. But what the Smithsonian has launched today is something new. It is strategically coordinated across content areas. It is enhanced with advanced user features. It has specific outreach to educators beyond the 3D files to curriculum and more. It has social media features. And it organizes it all on one site, under one brand.

And perhaps more than anything else, it is the tip of the tip of the iceberg, as it is situated within the context of the Smithsonian taking that bold leap to 3D digitize and share their collections.

While I am excited about what the Smithsonian has done (and will do) I am more excited by the disruptive affect it will have across the museum landscape, raising the bar and expanding the possibility space for all.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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One Response to Raising the Bar: The Launch of Smithsonian’s X 3D

  1. Tricia Jones says:

    This is very neat. We are digitizing some skulls from the mammal collection at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Our work was inspired in part by your summer camp activities. The mammalogy instructors we’ve spoken to are excited about the possibilities. However, being able to point to the Smithsonian resources might make it even easier for others to understand the possibilities

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