November 20, 2013

The Smithsonian wants you… to print a gunboat


This gunboat right here.

If you’ve long harbored a desire to print out a Revolutionary War gunboat on your local 3-D printer, your day has come. Starting this Wednesday, the Smithsonian is making many objects from its collections available for 3-D printing.

Some of the things you can print out, according to a Christian Science Monitor article by Brett Zongker, include:

the Wright brothers’ first airplane, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, casts of President Abraham Lincoln’s face during the Civil War and a Revolutionary War gunboat… a former slave’s horn, a missionary’s gun from the 1800s and a woolly mammoth fossil from the Ice Age.

It’s all part of a recent initiative called Smithsonian X 3D, which is still in beta. The network of nineteen museums that make up the Smithsonian have been scanning objects from their archives and making them available for printing (and manipulation — first person to put Abraham Lincoln’s face on a woolly mammoth wins eternal glory) through a new web portal, which will open up their collections in unprecedented ways.

3-D scans mean that people can view collections remotely, can see materials that are usually kept in storage, and can in general interact in a more hands-on way with rare or fragile objects. They can also play a part in balancing availability with local ownership, for objects that have connections to particular communities or sites: for instance, one of the objects on the portal is the Kéet S’aaxw (Killer Whale Hat) from the Dakl’aweidí clan, which was collected in southeast Alaska in 1904 by ethnologist John Reed Swanton and repatriated to the clan in 2005. It was scanned by the Smithsonian in 2007 and can now be studied in all its extraordinary detail on the site (and replicated, in case of loss), while the original remains with clan descendants.

The Smithsonian’s digitization director Gunter Waibel sees the potential opened up by 3-D scanning and printing as part of a change in the relationship between museums and their patrons. From the CSA article:

“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.”

Of course, with the possibility of replicating, say, David Livingstone’s gun — which is one of the initial set of objects up on the Smithsonian X 3D site — comes questions of intellectual property, conditions of use, and safety (so far, 3-D guns appear to be equally likely to hurt people by blowing up as by being used as actual weapons).

The Smithsonian is keeping an eye on this:

While posting data online to easily replicate important artifacts might lead to some attempts to counterfeit objects to sell, Smithsonian officials said the data is provided only for educational and non-commercial use.

“People generally adhere to the terms of use, and we’ve had very few instances of the public misusing the content or ignoring the terms of use,” said spokeswoman Sarah Sulick. “We recognize that new technologies may present new challenges, but we’ll watch it carefully and take appropriate action if needed.”

And while some objects on the site (ahem, David Livingstone’s gun) might seem feasible, and even tempting, for those with other than pedagogical interests, there are other objects that don’t fit any obvious delinquent ends. They’re just marvels: for instance, the 3-D model of the remnants of supernova or the entire archaeological site of the cave Liang Bua in Indonesia, where the remains of what may be an entirely new (to science) species of Homo genus were discovered in 2003.

As the costs of 3-D printing drop and many more people are able to print out and study replicas of the Smithsonian’s collections, the avenues for research, discovery, and invention seem truly great. And along the way, of course, there’ll be some gorgeous epic 3-D printing fails.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.