3D Printing Aids Smithsonian “Mission to Increase and Diffuse Knowledge”

A life-sized statue of “Man of the People” Thomas Jefferson serves as centerpiece to “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). However, like the Sage of Monticello himself, this statue holds a very special secret. Rather than having been cast in bronze by an artisan sculptor, it was 3D printed in production-grade thermoplastics by RedEye On Demand, in collaboration with the Smithsonian itself, as part of the Institution’s project to make its collection more widely accessible to the public.

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Thomas Jefferson, 3D-printed in detail

The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, along with New York-based sculpting and design firm StudioEIS, analyzed an existing statue with a Minolta laser scanner to construct a digital 3D model. That model was then sent over to RedEye On Demand which, in turn, replicated the statue in four separate parts using fused deposition modeling (FDM). The process took upwards of 400 hours to print, after which, the team simulated a bronze patina with paint and wax.

According to Dorey Butter, Project Manager at the NMAAHC, “3D printing supports the Smithsonian’s mission to increase and diffuse knowledge. Touchable models and scientific replicas can help further our efforts to educate our visitors, and the technology and services at RedEye On Demand have opened our eyes to different possibilities.”

The Smithsonian has amassed a collection of some 137 million artifacts, yet, as CNET reported, only two percent of those are accessible to the public at any given time. Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office intend to broaden that availability by either 3D printing replica objects or assembling a digital archive of scanned 3D models. To quote that same CNET article, “They’re creating what Rossi called a ‘digital surrogate,’ a ‘new form of museum collection’ that could mean a wealth of information that could be available to anyone with a computer, or at the very least, to a wide variety of museums, schools, and other interested institutions.”

With the Thomas Jefferson statue complete, that’s one down and 137 million to go. Between the two of them, Metallo and Rossi see themselves finishing only a few dozen such projects a year, so obviously the duo is looking at a long term undertaking. So long, in fact, that 3D software and standard file formats will very likely have evolved by the time the project is done. One obvious stumbling block to any form of digital archiving is the likelihood that current software will become obsolete over time, but Rossi doesn’t seem too worried. He believes data recovery in the future should not pose a problem, so long as future archivists are “thoughtful about how they do it.”

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