The Smithsonian is Shifting to a Future of Digital Museum Experiences

The Smithsonian’s collection of historical artifacts is so large that only 1% of its 150 million piece collection is showcased at any given time. Mixed with age and fragility, the museum is quickly virtualizing its collection to be viewed online.

The goal of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office (DPO) is to digitally scan these historical artifacts and publish those scans online for future generations to enjoy and interact with. Since 2009, the DPO has used digital scanning technology to capture historical artifacts in three dimensions and offer these scans online for the world to see.

“We feel a great sense of urgency in bringing our collections online,” the DPO says. “With only 1% of the Smithsonian’s collections on display at any one time, digitization could allow us to bring the remaining 99% of the collection into the virtual light. These digital assets will allow not just the Smithsonian, but the world at large, to tell and share new stories about the familiar — and the unfamiliar — treasures in these collections.”

With the collection divided by 21 museums, nine research centers, a zoo, and numerous storage facilities, the challenge of maintaining these artifacts in museum-quality condition is vast. The DPO is charged with digitizing these collections using cutting-edge technologies and exploring ways to enhance the access, use, and impact of these digitized Smithsonian collections. To date, the DPO has digitally captured over five million objects from the collection, with two projects currently underway.

Photogrammetry is being used to capture historical artifacts in 3D by taking hundreds of images.

Among the tools used for the DPO’s chief mission is the technique of photogrammetry. This is the process of taking hundreds, and even thousands of digital pictures from every conceivable angle, along with shots up close and at a distance.

With complete coverage, those photos are then placed into a computer and software creates a point cloud which can then be used to view the artifact in three dimensions. The software is capable of creating an exact 3D model of the artifact, which can be downloaded and 3D printed. The data can also be used to restore broken artifacts virtually so they can be seen whole again.

In Photogrammetry, 3D Models can be generated based on the image data.

The DPO wants to go beyond just looking at a scan from any angle, but also wants users to become fully immersed in the artifact, understand the story behind it, and experience what it was like to use the artifact. The DPO argues that this is the future of museums.

Interior Scan of the Apollo 11 command module.

A perfect example of this strategy in action is what the Smithsonian has done with the Apollo 11 command module. With the original sealed away behind thick polycarbonate glass, a museum visitor can only see it from a distance and could never get inside it. But with the digital scan, suddenly the entire ship becomes explorable and details like the handwritten notes by pilot Michael Collins inscribed on the ship’s instrument panel are something everyone can enjoy.

Imagine putting on Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit and taking that “one small step” on the moon from a first-person perspective, or taking Chuck Yeager’s Bell X1 aircraft — known as the “Glamorous Glennis” — up in the virtual air to break the sound barrier.

These are historical events that anyone will be able to experience without bringing wear and tear to the fragile artifacts themselves. History comes alive while being preserved and becomes a far more impactful experience compared to lines of text and pictures in a history book.

The DPO has digitally scanned over 5 million artifacts to date.

In the end, museums are about storytelling, and the Digitization Program Office is using every new technology at its disposal to make sure those stories are told for generations to come. As the process continues, the DPO’s office allows anyone to take a look at the growing digital collection of historical artifacts up close. The DPO even allows anyone to download models and print them out at home.

Image credits: All photos by Smithsonian Digitization Program Office.