With most of its 137 million objects kept behind the scenes or in a faraway museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex, is launching a new 3D scanning and printing initiative to make more of its massive collection accessible to schools, researchers and the public worldwide.

A small team has begun creating 3D models of some key objects that represent the breadth of the collection at the Smithsonian. Some of the first 3D scans include the Wright brothers’ first airplane, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, and casts of President Abraham Lincoln’s face during the Civil War. Less familiar objects include a former slave’s horn, a missionary’s gun from the 1800s and a woolly mammoth fossil from the Ice Age. They are pieces of history some people may hear about but rarely see or touch.

Online viewer

On Wednesday, the museum launched a new 3D viewer online to give people a closer look at artefacts in their own homes. The data can also be downloaded, recreated with a 3D printer and used to help illustrate lessons in history, art and science in schools. While some schools might acquire 3D printers for about $1,000, other users may examine the models on their computers.

Smithsonian digitisation director Gunter Waibel said museums are working to redefine their relationship with audiences to become more interactive. “Historically, museums have just tried to push data out. It’s been a one-way street,” he said. “Now museums are really rethinking their relationship with their audience, and they’re trying to empower their audiences to help them along whatever learning journey they’re on.”

With the cost of 3D scanning and printing equipment declining in recent years, Waibel said there’s a new opportunity for museums to transform how they collect, curate and conserve artefacts and also how they educate. Three-dimensional models can help tell stories and create more engaging lessons, he said. So far, the Smithsonian is devoting about $350,000 annually to 3D digitisation, with companies also donating equipment. But museum officials are working to raise $15 million going forward to move the 3D lab from a suburban warehouse in Maryland to a new innovation centre planned for the National Mall. There, the public could see some of the latest 3D technology and even make their own 3D prints of museum objects in a “maker lab.” Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough has made digitisation of artefacts a high priority since he arrived in 2008, but only more recently has 3D scanning and printing become affordable. In an interview, he said museums face a greater challenge than the digitisation of documents in libraries or archives because museum artefacts are often three-dimensional. In a new e-book published this year, Clough called on museums to speed up their work to innovate and digitise collections to make artefacts accessible for a generation born in the Internet age. — AP