3D Scanning in Museums: A Q&A with the Smithsonian's “Laser Cowboys”

In the nineteenth century, cast collections—plaster copies of famous statues and architectural monuments primarily from antiquity and the Renaissance—enabled working people to study and enjoy works of art that previously had only been available to the wealthy elite who could travel to see the originals. Museums like the Victoria & Albert in London and the Cooper Union in New York were established precisely with this aim of providing the working public access to excellent design and education. Many other colleges and museums around the world acquired their own cast collections, but by the mid-twentieth century the value of plaster casts were questioned—causing most institutions to dispose of their collections. Some still exist, but very few are on permanent display. Today some of these early plaster copies, particularly of the Elgin marbles, for example, can hold special value as they capture elements of the originals that have been lost or damaged over time.

Carnegie Museum of Art
The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh has one of the great cast collections still on exhibit in the United States. Photo by author.

This Kickstarter campaign got me thinking that we are about to experience a new and improved 21st-century version of cast collections and open access to art. Artist Cosmo Wenman has been given permission by the Skulpturhalle in Basel, Switzerland, to 3D scan any of their vast cast collection and make the files freely available to the public. In the not-too-distant future people will have the ability to download free 3D printable files from the web for their own use. Then anyone could generate their own cast collection, or their own curated collection of objects drawn from museums around the world. Whereas in the nineteenth century, it was institutions that commissioned casts for study collections, or wealthy individuals who could afford to acquire them for their mansions, when 3D printers become more affordable and accessible, it will be elementary school classrooms and art students and the rest of us. And unlike in the 19th century, where one was reliant on the offerings of a formatore, like Domenico Brucciani, who supplied the Victoria & Albert and the British Museum, in the future it could be up to the individual to pick their own originals to make models from (barring copyright restrictions).  And it doesn’t have to rely on extremely high-end technology. As Wenman explains in this interview, he is using his eight-year-old standard digital camera to take the photos used to create the 3D models.

So, I wondered, how is the Smithsonian Institution, keeper of the iconic objects that in some ways represent our American version of the great statues of antiquity, approaching this 3D revolution? Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo are with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office. Their work making 3D scans of the Smithsonian’s collections and research projects has earned them the moniker “the Laser Cowboys.”

How is the Smithsonian making its objects available in 3D?

We’ve been working with departments across the Smithsonian (19 museums, and nearly a dozen research centers). We are working with objects that further lots of different goals – that by scanning these objects we will help solve a problem, support research, aid in conservation, and further public access and education.

We are only a three-person team, and we are working with a vast organization. So we are hoping to hold up these initial projects as ways to show the potential of the technology – as a demonstration of what could happen if we leveraged this 3D technology and scaled it up.

Lincoln Life Mask
Doing a 3D scan of Lincoln’s life mask at the National Portrait Gallery. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Digitization Office.

How did you get started with this?

We both came from the institution’s Office of Exhibits Central – the organization that builds the exhibits across the Smithsonian. We first started working there with 3D printers and scanners, and as demand grew we moved over to the Digitization Program Office, in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

You mentioned that the Smithsonian is using this technology for research. Can you give me an example?

We have gone to the sites of several paleontological excavations, such as to Chile to document a five-million-year-old fossil whale found in the Atacama desert. When you remove a fossil from the earth, you lose a lot of potential data from the surrounding environment. With 3D scanning technology, we are able to preserve and document a lot of that information for future research.

But this work is also transforming how one could work with collections on site at the Smithsonian. Researchers travel here from all over the world to spend time with the objects. 3D scanning opens up a whole new world of scientific tools, and increases researchers’ access to the collections. 3D scanning of a skull, for example, might take in some 300+ points of measurement. Making millions of measurement points would not be possible by hand. Now researchers will be able to collect a lot of data to take home with them. They could compare the 3D geometry of one skull to another, for example.

How else do you see this information being used in a museum environment?

Mammouth scanning
Night at the museum. One of the Digitization Office members scanning a woolly mammoth at 5am. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Digitization Office.

3D technology is already being used to support conservation at the Smithsonian. For example, we had a very fragile object that had to travel to the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition. We scanned the object and the Office of Exhibits Central used the data to design a perfect cradle for travel, ensuring that the object was packed in the most protected and secure way possible.

In another example, the Hirshhorn has a Bruce Nauman sculpture, From Hand to Mouth, that is made of a synthetic hydrocarbon wax. It was a sensitive object that was deemed OK to travel for a special exhibition. 3D scanning it in 2009, prior to its shipping and public display, and again in 2013 gave the Hirshhorn a new tool with which to measure and assess its condition – and determine whether the traveling had in fact been detrimental (it had not).

What are the kinds of objects that you see working in a classroom setting?

We are actively working with educators. Implementing 3D printing in the classroom is still very complex. You need a lot of preparation of the data, to make it a meaningful experience. The Smithsonian is in an excellent position to provide a variety of cross-disciplinary information, and to build STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] curriculum, for example, around the 3D content.

Is the Smithsonian going to make 3D files available for public download? Are there restrictions that would prevent a Cosmo Wenman from coming to the Smithsonian to take their own photos to generate their own 3D printing files?

We are waiting for a pan-institutional policy to be made. We hope that Smithsonian data can be made available without restrictions, and in the meantime we continue to work on ways to deliver 3D content to the world.

So, what’s next?

We are at the beginning of the demand for this kind of data. We need to show what’s possible – so that people will understand what the technology will allow. We are already starting to see an uptick in demand, but we expect it to grow exponentially. People know how to use 2D information, like photographs, but they don’t really know yet how to interact with 3D information. That will change soon!

Related Links:

Watch a video of the Laser Cowboys at work digitally capturing America’s oldest fighting vessel, the Gunboat Philadelphia. They scanned the entire object, which will enable a more comprehensive understanding of this object – for users online or even for visitors to the exhibit, which is displayed in very tight quarters and difficult to take in in its entirety. They also scanned a small six-by-six inch portion of the surface of the vessel in high-resolution, for conservation purposes, so that museum professionals can monitor the degradation of the surface over time.

See more of the work of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Office at their Facebook page, and check out their twitter feed: @3D_Digi_SI.

Explore the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture, home to their historic cast collection.