Print Your Own Revolutionary War Boat, In 3-D

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Have you ever wanted to see a woolly mammoth skeleton? How about Amelia Earhart's flight suit (one worn before her fateful last flight, mind you)?

To see them in person, you can visit the Smithsonian's Natural History and Postal museums, respectively, in Washington, D.C. But now you can take a closer look — in 3-D — on the Smithsonian website, too. The institution has made 20 digitized objects from among its vast holdings available online to the public for viewing from every possible angle.

The Smithsonian gets more than 30 million visitors each year to its 19 museums, Gunter Waibel, the Smithsonian's digitization director who is heading up the X 3D project, tells All Things Considered's Robert Siegel. "That sounds like a really big number, but that also leaves out a lot of people."

And with only 1 percent of the institution's 137 million objects actually on display to the public at any given time, even museum visitors barely scratch the surface of the fossils, weapons, artworks, textiles and even historic furniture within the institutions' collections.

Digitizing its holdings — and making them available to anyone to view from any angle with its 3-D Explorer viewer — is "our way of ... letting you into the storeroom — letting you really explore parts of the Smithsonian you really wouldn't otherwise get to see," Waibel says.

Take the Gunboat Philadelphia, on display in the National Museum of American History. A floating gun platform built to keep the British at bay in New York's Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War, it was sunk by a British cannon in 1776, where it was perfectly preserved on the frigid lake floor.

Even in the museum, there's insufficient space for in-person visitors to walk around the entire boat. "So now, by making the 3-D model available, we can actually look at angles that visitors haven't seen ever since ... the object has been placed in the museum" in the 1950s, Waibel explains.

Examining and flipping the objects in the viewer is engrossing, but they're not just for looking. The Smithsonian has also made the data for each of its 20 currently digitized objects also available for free 3-D printing.

"We really wanted to take people's experience from ... interacting and seeing to an experience where they could actually get creative and really work with the data," Waibel says.

With such a vast collection of items across the Smithsonian collections, the institution doesn't plan on digitizing everything, explains spokeswoman Sarah Taylor Sulick. The scanning process for three-dimensional images is time-consuming and expensive, Sulick says. (Much of the current effort has been supported by in-kind technology and equipment.)

"So what we're trying to do with this program is digitize the kinds of objects that help us tell their stories in new and interesting ways," she says.

And don't go printing a 3-D model of that gunboat to sell on eBay — the data, Waibel says, are only for educational and noncommercial use.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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