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Now You Can Tour the Smithsonian's Artifacts Online—and in 3D

America’s attic just got a lot less dusty.

America’s attic just got a lot less dusty.

Today, the Smithsonian Institution unveiled an online 3D imaging viewer for its Smithsonian X3D collection that offers the masses the opportunity to get face-to-face with some of the objects in the museum's enormous collection. With over 137 million pieces in total, only one percent of which are currently on display, it opens up a new future of accessibility for the public and of conservation for the Institution’s complex of nineteen museums.


From the comfort of your living room couch, you can browse, rotate, and consider individual items as disparate as a life mask of Abraham Lincoln’s face and the remnants of a supernova. By clicking around in the Autodesk-based viewer, you’ll find notes that explain what you’re seeing: This red dot is cooler debris from the supernova; Those purple projectiles are matter and energy shooting off from the explosion, and so on.

If you aren’t content with simply guiding yourself, there is also the option of a tour. As you head into a tour, the 3D representations of objects will be accompanied by explanatory texts. Key aspects of each object will be zoomed in on or otherwise highlighted when appropriate. You can also adjust lighting and colors to your liking. Lincoln's bust, for example, is now teal in my viewer:

Since I am a total nerd for museums, I do wish the tours had an audio track, a virtual docent’s voice to guide me through the chaos a supernova’s aftermath. But alas.

Ideally, the Smithsonian hopes the value of this new tool won’t be limited to realm of the browser. Beyond the viewer, users will be able to download an object’s 3D data and get a hard copy via the exhaustingly ubiquitous world of 3D printing. Together, these tools can be used for education—or, I don’t know, maybe you just want a miniature neon copy of the Wright Flyer for your desk.

It's all part of the Smithsonian’s larger digitization scheme and an embracing of digital technologies by museums at large. 3D imaging and other high tech offer a potential revolution in the museum experience.

As Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution told in August, there will be no more “voice of God” to show you how to perceive a museum anymore. With tools like the viewer, you won't have to slog through the halls of a museum you don’t care for on your way to the dinosaurs and planetarium.

Instead, it will be up to you and your mouse to determine how, when, and what parts of museum pique your interest.