As 3-D imaging and printing advance from science fiction to reality, Günter Waibel is deploying these cutting-edge technologies to make some of the Smithsonian Institution’s immense holdings available throughout the United States and around the world.
As director of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, Waibel and team members Vincent Rossi and Adam Metallo have created vivid 3-D scans of historical treasures such as the Wright Brothers’ first airplane, life-mask casts of Abraham Lincoln’s face, a 1,500-year-old Buddha sculpture, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, a woolly mammoth and a prehistoric fossilized whale.
Users can view and rotate the 3-D objects on their computers, take accurate measurements between points and adjust color and lighting. The technology has a storytelling feature, which allows Smithsonian curators and educators to create guided tours of the models. In addition, the objects can be downloaded and recreated with a 3-D printer.
At any given time, less than 1 percent of the Smithsonian’s 137 million items are on public display. The goal is to make 10 percent of this collection accessible online through digitized photos, text and audiovisual files. Digitization in 3-D requires significantly more time and resources than 2-D digitization, and the Smithsonian is currently exploring how to increase the output with this technology.
“Günter Waibel, Vincent Rossi and Adam Metallo have extended the reach of the Smithsonian from our 30 million in-person visitors to anyone in the world with a web browser,” said Deron Burba, the Smithsonian’s chief information officer.
Burba said the team’s work not only is supporting the mission of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, but also could help “transform core functions at museums around the globe.” Already, the Smithsonian’s 3-D work has sparked discussions among other museums about embarking on similar digitization efforts.
Claudine Brown, the Smithsonian’s assistant secretary for education and access, said Waibel’s team had the foresight to use the technology in unexpected ways.
“The Smithsonian collection is so large in scale, you can only see a small portion of it even when you visit one of the museums,” said Brown. “The process of digitizing makes it possible for people to observe these objects in completely different ways.”
Brown noted that with some American Indian cultural items in a museum collection being returned to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes, digitization allows the Smithsonian to maintain versions of these objects for the public to see and study. She said it also will allow researchers to further their scholarship and recreate models for future study to use in teaching and to explain their work in new ways.
The museum’s 3-D items have been used as teaching tools at a Houston community college, which downloaded one of Lincoln’s masks as it studied the Gettysburg Address, and at a Philadelphia charter school, which included copies of the Wright airplane as well as a representation of a supernova as parts of its science curriculum.
“Günter, Adam and Vince have created something that is hands-on in a new way,” said Corey Kilbane, a science teacher at Philadelphia’s William Penn Charter School. “They’ve been really great about getting these primary resources into schools.”
Waibel said the Smithsonian holds its collections in trust for the American people, but it does little good if they can’t see it.
“We want these collections to have an impact and feed the learning and creative journey of every individual in the country,” said Waibel. “The digitization program is the best way we can think of doing that.”
Waibel began the 3-D digitization project not long after he started at the Smithsonian three years ago. He and other museum officials decided to digitize at least one object from each of its 19 museums, a process that Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said enabled Waibel to display his management as well as his technical skills.
“The impressive thing about Günter is not just that he’s an expert at the digitization, but he got to know everyone at the Smithsonian,” Clough said. “He knew how to engage people in the technical process.”
At the same time, Waibel was able to work with officials in the private sector to forge partnerships and bring funding and technical expertise to the effort.
“I think it’s really challenging for an institution that is as old as the Smithsonian to meaningfully incorporate technology that is new and cutting-edge,” said Waibel.
“Museums are very conservative places, quite literally,” he added. “What is really fascinating to me is the meeting of a 160-year-old institution with technology that has never been employed at this scale at a museum.”