The Smithsonian Institution comprises a collection of nineteen museums, nine research centres, and oneNational Zoo spread across the United States.

The Smithsonian has a vast collection of objects, artefacts, and specimens—about 155 million in all. These objects include everything from insects to airplanes, an immense record of science, history, art, nature, and everything in between. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office is on a mission to capture these objects with 3D scanning.

“The goal of our group is really to think about how we can use 3D measurement tools and 3D scanning tools to either solve a research problem or support access,” said Vincent Rossi, Senior 3D Program Officer with the Digitization Program Office.

“We work with all nineteen museums and nine research centres. We’re a five-person team and we operate kind of like a little start-up within the Smithsonian universe.”

The Smithsonian’s raison d’être, according to the Institution itself, is to increase and diffuse knowledge. There are many ways the Digitization Program Office uses 3D scanning to achieve this goal. Perhaps the most obvious is to record the Smithsonian’s objects for posterity and to make them more accessible to the world. With 155 million objects in the collection, less than one percent can ever be physically displayed. By scanning these objects and making them available, many more people can gain access to the collection.

But the Digitization Program Office wants to go further than just scanning an object and sharing the model. They want to pair the models with the curators and researchers who study them, to imbue the models with stories that connect them to the real world.

“To use that 3D object as a tool for learning and discovery, that’s the real goal of our office and the Smithsonian,” said Rossi.

“Real research happens here. It’s a research institution. And a lot of the exhibits that you see on display are products of that research,” Rossi said. “So, another thing we do is use 3D scanning tools to support research at the Smithsonian and around the world.”

In 2010, Rossi and his team travelled to Tanzania to document an early human footprint site called EngareSero. In those days, the Digitalization Program Office was using slightly lower tech: they took 1200 images using a 21.1-megapixel Canon DSLR. Using photogrammetry software originally meant for the Australian mining industry, Rossi and the team generated point clouds of three early human footprints. In the time since, they’ve been able to reprocess the data to produce even higher resolution meshes.

Next Steps for the Digitization Program Office

When not scanning the Smithsonian’s gigantic collection, the Digitization Program Office is working diligently to create 3D tools and standards that can help make their work easier and more accessible. They’re currently developing an open-source tool that will automate some of the post-processing steps involved in 3D data capture.

“Thinking about how we can improve the processing time is really key for our team and it’s important for us thinking about scaling up. How do we make a dent in scanning the massive collection that the Smithsonian holds? If we do that with manual methods that are in place now, it’s certainly amazing job security, but we wouldn’t make a dent with manual methods.”

Whatever steps the Digitization Program Office takes in the future, they’ll do so only with the help of altruistic partners. About 60 percent of the Smithsonian’s budget is funded by the federal government, and the difference is made up through fundraising and partnerships with companies.

To view any of the 3D models click here.