A Night at the Museum with the Smithsonian’s Laser Cowboys

A look at the future with Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, who recently spent two nights scanning the Natural History Museum’s entire Dino Hall in 3D

Jacqueline Moen

Last Monday, April 15, the National Museum of Natural History actually did come to life after hours. Not with mummies or miniature armies, of course, but with a small group of volunteers, a bunch of fancy-looking equipment and two guys at the forefront of museum digitization.

Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, of the 3D Lab in the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, work with laser scanners to create high resolution, three-dimensional digital models of objects and places around the Smithsonian Institution. Last week, they teamed up with curators at the Natural History Museum for the second of two nights of scanning the Dinosaur Hall, the museum’s iconic galleries that house prehistoric fossils from the ancient seas through the Ice Age. The hall is scheduled to close in 2014 for a ground-up, multi-year renovation, so Metallo and Rossi, dubbed the “Laser Cowboys” by their colleagues, were brought in to capture the hall’s present arrangement before all the fossils are removed.

“The main purpose of 3D scanning an exhibit like this is to have an archive of what an exhibit of this era might have looked,” Metallo says. “This is a documentation for folks in the future to know what a museum experience here was like.”

The scanning has immediate uses as well. With accurate digital 3D models of T-Rex and his friends’ skeletons, curators and designers will have a much easier time envisioning the exhibition’s future iterations and testing out ideas for optimal arrangements. Paleontologists, too, will suddenly have access to fossils anytime, anywhere. “There’s one specimen that’s on display two stories up in the air,” Metallo says. “Now, instead of a researcher having to get up on a scissor lift to look at it, we can just email him the digital model.”

And if digital models aren’t enough, 3D scanning might soon allow anyone interested in fossils to get even closer to the real thing. “We’re seeing a real democratization of 3D printing along with 3D scanning,” says Rossi. “There are apps for iPhones that allow you to use a camera as a 3D scanning device. Pretty much any museum visitor could create a pretty decent model of a museum object, and potentially take that through a 3D printer. There’s still a fair amount of expertise required at the moment, but it’s going to be a lot more user-friendly in the next two or three years.”

In other words, it’s not inconceivable that you could print out your own stegosaurus skeleton for your living room on your home 3D printer someday.

Ultimately, Rossi and Metallo dream of digitizing all 137 million of the objects in the Smithsonian’s collections. Because only two percent of the objects are displayed in the Institution’s museums at any time—and many people never have the chance to see even those in person—precise replicas could be printed and sent to local museums across the country, or viewed digitally on a computer screen anywhere in the world.

As for future of the Dino Hall, Matthew Carrano, the museum’s curator of dinosauria, says his team is still in the early stages of planning exactly how the exhibit will look when it reopens in 2019, but that it definitely will strive to incorporate humans into the dinosaurs’ story. “The biggest thing I hope for in the new hall is that a visitor comes here and is inspired, amazed and interested in the history of life on earth, and understands that this history is still relevant to them today, and to the world today,” he explains. “There are problems we face as human beings that paleontology can help address. Dinosaurs didn’t exist by themselves; they were part of environments and ecosystems just like we are today. And that connection is really important to everything we’re going to show in this hall.”

To learn more about 3D scanning and printing at Smithsonian, check out Metallo and Rossi’s Facebook page, and follow them on twitter @3D_Digi_SI. To learn more about dinosaurs, check out the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur page.

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