November 13, 2013
Over the past few years, Adam Metallo, Vince Rossi and other members of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office have used 3D scanning to solve a century-old murder mystery, preserve a millennia-old fossil whale site threatened by highway construction in Chile and digitally capture every nook and cranny of Abraham Lincoln’s face, as represented in a plaster mask made just before his death, among other feats.
Now, they’re bringing together dozens of the world’s leading experts on 3D scanning and printing at the Smithsonian X 3D Conference. The event, held today and tomorrow at the Freer-Sackler Meyer Auditorium and simulcast above, is a celebration of the digitization work that’s occurred so far and a discussion of how such technology will transform the Smithsonian Institution—as well as the state of science, museums and education as a whole—going forward.
One of the event’s biggest announcements is the beta release of the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer—a web-based interface that allows users to explore, share and print 3D models of dozens of the Smithsonian’s most remarkable artifacts, with more to follow over the coming years. This technology will allow for all sorts of new uses of historical artifacts and scientific specimens: Researchers can share items with colleagues for analysis, teachers can use virtual objects in classroom lessons and members of the public can get unprecedented access to Smithsonian items, many of which aren’t on display due to space limitations.
The 3D data for the items shown in the Explorer will also be downloadable in full resolution, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to create replicas of these objects at any scale. As a demonstration, the Digitization Office will be creating a full-scale, 26-foot long 3D print of one of the fossil whales from Chile.
“I think 3D printing technology is a huge game changer, because you can actually replicate the three dimensional physicality of an artifact,” says Paul Debevec, a computer graphics pioneer who will be delivering a keynote at the event. “When you’re working on proposed reconstructions of what an ancient artifact might have looked like, for instance, you don’t have to actually mess with the original artifact—you can scan it without touching it, print out what you’ve got, and three different historians can come up with three different ideas how of the item may have once looked.”
The Digitization office is also pursuing plans to construct a state-of-the-art 3D scanning and printing lab at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on the Mall, currently under renovation. “We’re basically going to bring our lab to the public,” Vince Rossi says. “Like the fishbowl at the Natural History Museum—where staff work on fossils—we’re going to bring our 3D scanning efforts out into the public eye, so people can see what we’re working on.” Additionally, in the new space, they’ll make their high-end 3D scanning and printing equipment available for public use.
The conference will feature panels and keynote addresses from dozens of leaders in 3D technology, including Saul Griffith, the inventor and founder of Otherlab, and Ping Fu, the Chief Strategy Officer of 3D Systems. Together with Rossi, Metallo and other Smithsonian staff, they’ll examine how digitization will shape the future of the Smithsonian and grapple with the challenges of effectively digitizing and making publicly available millions of artifacts and specimens.
“For a museum curator, there are scary aspects to letting collections roam digitally on the internet,” Debevec says, “but it seems that Smithsonian curators understand the potential of all this, and I think they’re going to be on the forefront of making it happen.”
Watch the livestream above for coverage of the two-day conference.
October 22, 2013
The doors of the Smithsonian’s museums were recently shuttered during the debt crisis and shutdown of the United States government. Americans who had long ago planned their trips to the nation’s capital, as well as foreign tourists and school children, arrived only to find signs barring them from entry “due to the government shutdown.” Elsewhere in the country, visitors to national parks, historic monuments and memorials, and even websites found a similar message. The shutdown and debt ceiling crisis brought home to many Americans the fragility of our democracy. That sense of loss and then relief prompts a reflection on why these items came to be significant and how they became, sometimes surprisingly, even precariously, enshrined as icons of our American experience.
The National Zoo’s panda cub born on August 23, 2013, weighed just three pounds when the camera inside the enclosure went dark on October 1. But the cub’s mother Mei Xiang remained diligent in her maternal care, and the Zoo’s animal handlers and veterinarians continued their expert vigilance—so that when the panda cam came back on, the public was delighted to see the little cub was not only healthy, but had gained two pounds and was noticeably more mature. Tens of thousands of viewers rushed to the website on October 18, crashing the system over and over again. The next day, the Zoo’s celebrated reopening made newspaper headlines across the nation.
The excitement reminded me of another type of opening, when the pandas made their original appearance at the Zoo during the Nixon administration. Those first pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, came to Washington in 1972 because Nixon was seeking a diplomatic opening of a relationship between the United States and the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China. As part of a mutual exchange of gifts, the Chinese offered the pandas to the United States. And we in turn, gave the Chinese a pair of musk oxen, named Milton and Matilda. This was zoological diplomacy at its most elaborate—the State Department had carefully brokered the deal, ruling out other creatures, like the bald eagle, as unsuitable. The eagle, it determined, was too closely associated with our beloved national symbol. Bears were symbolic of Russia, and mountain lions signaled too much aggression. In any case, I think we got the better of the deal. The pandas became instant celebrities and when they took up residence at the Zoo, they transcended their diplomatic role, becoming instead the much-loved personalities and evolving over time into ambassadors of species and ecosystem conservation.
The Statue of Liberty, so familiar to us in New York Harbor as a symbol of freedom, is a historic beacon to immigrants, and a tourist destination, but it didn’t start out that way. Its sculptor and cheerleader Frédéric Bartholdi initially designed the large statue for the Suez Canal in Egypt. But finding a lack of interest there, Bartholdi modified and repurposed it for a French effort to celebrate friendship with America in celebration of the U.S. centennial. The sculptor found an ideal site for it in New York, and while French citizens enthusiastically donated their money to fabricate the statue, American fundraising for the statue’s land, base and foundation faltered. Hoping to persuade Congress to support the project, Bartholdi sent a scale model of Liberty from Paris to Washington, where it was installed in the Capitol Rotunda. But Congress wasn’t swayed.
Other U.S. cities sought the statue. Newspaper publisher and grateful immigrant Joseph Pulitzer eventually took up the cause—donations large and small at last rolled in. In 1886, with Thomas Edison’s newly invented electric lights installed in Liberty’s torch, President Grover Cleveland pulled the rope to unveil her face, and the Statue of Liberty was open. It was some 17 years later, as a massive influx of immigration was stirring civic debate, that the poem by Emma Lazarus with its famed phrase “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” was posthumously added as an inscription on its base. It’s wonderful to be able to visit the Statue in New York again every day, and Bartholdi’s model too, is here in Washington, residing on the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The shutdown of the immensely popular National Air and Space Museum came at a particularly unfortunate time. The museum was temporarily displaying, through October 22, Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten and illustrated Codex on the Flight of Birds, a rare and unusual loan from the people of Italy. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens missed out on an opportunity to see this amazing Renaissance document from the early 16th century—an experience made all the more poignant because it was put on display alongside the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer. Almost like the fulfillment of da Vinci’s musing, this airplane opened the skies to humans in an unprecedented way after a series of flights on North Carolina’s Outer Banks on December 17, 1903. The Flyer was the first heavier than air, self-powered, piloted craft to exhibit controlled, sustained flight. It took on irreparable damage that day and never flew again. Few realize, however, that a disagreement between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian nearly prevented the flyer from ever coming to Washington. Orville was rightly offended by the incorrect labeling of another airplane on view at the Smithsonian. The label claimed the honor of first in flight went to an aircraft invented by Samuel P. Langley, a former Secretary of the Institution. The dispute lasted for decades and the Wright Flyer went to London and would have stayed there had not Orville Wright and the Smithsonian finally settled their differences in 1948 and the little aircraft that changed history came to Washington.
The Star-Spangled Banner on view at the National Museum of American History reminds us of how our government and nation was almost shutdown by war and invasion. In August 1814, British troops, had routed the local militia, invaded Washington, burned the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings and was advancing on to Baltimore, a strategic target with its privateers and port on the Chesapeake Bay. British ships pounded Fort McHenry which defended the city from invasion. Rockets and bombs burst overhead through the night in a vicious assault—but the troops and the fortifications held strong. And on September 14, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet saw the huge American garrison flag still flying in the “dawn’s early light,” and penned the words that once set to music became our national anthem. The flag itself was paraded and celebrated almost to destruction throughout the 19th century; people clipped pieces of its red, white and blue threadbare wool cloth as souvenirs. Finally, in 1907, the flag was sent to the Smithsonian for safekeeping. We’ve cared for it well, using support from the federal government and donors like Kenneth Behring, Ralph Lauren, and others to carefully restore it and house it in an environmentally controlled chamber—but when visitors see the flag and learn its story, they soon realize how tenuous our country’s hold on its freedom really was 200 years ago.
That theme is also illustrated at the White House—when visitors again re-enter the East Room and view the full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. This is the painting that Dolley Madison, slaves and servants saved when the British invaded the capital and burned the president’s house in 1814. The painting is not the original, but one of several versions from Gilbert Stuart’s studio. The original 1796 portrait was commissioned as gift to a pro-American former British Prime Minister, the Marquis of Lansdowne, who held a great respect for America’s first president. The Lansdowne was on long-term loan to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, but in 2000, the British owner announced his intention to sell it. Thankfully, the Donald Reynolds Foundation came to the rescue—buying the painting for the Smithsonian so that it could be enjoyed by every American. It can currently be seen in the exhibition “America’s Presidents” in the Portrait Gallery.
The basic principle of democracy—self-government, was spelled out in the Declaration of Independence that affirmed the founding of the United States on July 4, 1776. The Congress had John Dunlap print a broadside version of the Declaration, which was quickly and widely distributed. In the following months, a carefully hand-lettered version on vellum was signed by members of the Congress, including its president, John Hancock. This document is called the engrossed version. Lacking a permanent home during the Revolutionary War, the document traveled with Congress so that it could be safeguarded from the British. The engrossed version faded over the ensuing decades, and fearing its loss, the government had printer William Stone make a replica by literally pulling traces of ink off of the original to make a new engraving. Stone was ordered to print 200 copies so that yet another generation of Americans could understand the basis of nationhood. In 1823, he made 201—which included a copy for himself; that extra one was later donated by his family to the Smithsonian and is now in the collections of the American history museum. The faded engrossed version is on exhibit at the National Archives, re-opened for all to enjoy.
The Declaration of Independence has been preserved, enshrined, and reproduced. Its display continues to inspire visitors—and though its fragility might be taken as a metaphor for the fragility of the principles of democracy and freedom it represents, it also reminds us that democracy requires persistent care. Places like our museums, galleries, archives, libraries, national parks and historic sites provide the spaces in which the American people, no matter how divided on one or another issue of the day, can find inspiration in a rich, shared, and nuanced national heritage.
The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, Penguin Press, is out this month.
April 17, 2013
On April 16, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the impending effects of sequestration. Though the Obama administration had sought a $59 million budget increase for the Institution in fiscal 2014, this year Clough has to contend with a $41 million budget reduction due to sequestration. Gallery closings, fewer exhibitions, reduced educational offerings, loss of funding for research and cuts to the planning process of the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture were listed among the impacts of the sequestration.
Clough began his testimony: “Each year millions of our fellow citizens come to Washington to visit—for free—our great museums and galleries and the National Zoo, all of which are open every day of the year but one. Our visitors come with high aspirations to learn and be inspired by our exhibitions and programs.”
“It is my hope,” Clough told the committee, “that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration.” Perhaps most noticeable would be the gallery closures, which, while they would not close entire museums, would restrict access to certain floors or spaces in the museums, unable to pay for sufficient security. Those changes would begin May 1, according to Clough.
Clough warned, however, that while these short-term measures will save in the near future, they might also entail long-term consequences. Unforeseen costs may arise in the form of diminished maintenance capabilities, for example. “Any delays in revitalization or construction projects will certainly result in higher future operating and repair costs,” Clough said.
This also threatens the Institution’s role as steward of thousands of historic and valuable artifacts–”Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez,” to name a few.
January 15, 2013
Nothing says, “Welcome, Mr. President,” like 3,000 gas lights and a big hulking statue. At least, that is what America decided in 1881, the year James Garfield was sworn into office. On a snowy March 4, the Smithsonian’s spanking new Arts and Industries Building hosted an inaugural ball for the country’s 20th president after he won the seat by a slim margin over Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock. Though the weather kept many people from witnessing the inauguration itself (including Garfield’s lengthy inaugural address), more than 7,000 well-dressed citizens still trekked to the big party. Decorations included elaborate flag displays, garlands of lights strung from the ceiling, a temporary wooden floor, 10,000 bins for hats and coats and, in the museum’s rotunda, a huge female “Statue of America.”
According to a flyer for the ball (pictured below), the decor was “artistic, munificent, and attractive, embellished by the coats-of-arms of the different States, handsomely festooned with State flags and seals.”
The lady America, the flyer notes, was “illustrative of peace, justice, and liberty.” The statue’s uplifted hand held an electric light, which was “indicative of the skill, genius, progress, and civilization of the 19th century.”
The ball was not only an important political event, but a significant milestone in the Smithsonian’s history. It was the first public event ever held at the iconic museum, which was undergoing the final stages of construction for its opening in October (The Arts and Industries Building is currently closed and undergoing a major renovation.). Exhibits had yet to be installed in the museum, so no one had to worry about relocating priceless artifacts so that Garfield could spend an evening dancing.
Smithsonian museums have since hosted inaugural balls for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush and Clinton, as well as “unofficial” balls for Presidents G.W. Bush and Obama. (The building that is now the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery also hosted a ball for Lincoln’s second term in 1864.) The styles of these celebrations have changed with the times, so check out the pictures below from Smithsonian’s photo archives to see the late 19th century’s patriotic zeal for a president who, sadly–thanks to an assassination attempt and some poor doctors—would only remain in office for only 200 days.
July 13, 2012
Each morning around five, the crew of roughly 150 workers begins its day on the roof of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building. From below, the building doesn’t look like much. Under construction since 2004, the historic structure is jacketed in scaffolding. Tourists skirt around the building, looking for the carousel perhaps. But Debbie Maynard can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“Everyone loves working here,” says Maynard, “because of the historical meaning.” She takes care to point out the original brick, finials and steel frames. Completed in 1881, the building has aged gracefully. Here and there, bricks crumble into pieces and the statues all had to be removed and restored. The project even won an award for its scaffolding craftsmanship.
Friday morning, the ironworkers took a break in their busy schedule to recreate a historic photograph taken 106 years earlier. Maynard says every now and then someone will go home and search for information about the building, finding old images from its construction. A black and white image of workers installing roofing made its way to work and the crew decided they wanted to create their own moment in history.
It’s humid and only getting worse as the men lose valuable time in the morning cool, but they pose patiently. One jokes, “Didn’t those guys have pipes in the picture? We should have cigarettes.” No such luck.
As soon as the photographer has snapped his shots, General Foreman Scott Christensen yells, “Back to work!”
A whiteboard sits on the ground floor of the building displaying a growing collection of portraits of the workers. Maynard says they like to stop by and see if “they’ve made the board,” because they like being part of the building’s history. In the bottom right corner is the black and white photo that inspired Friday’s shoot.
As Project Engineer, Maynard is up on the roof every day. For now, the renovation plans only involve the exterior of the building. Those are expected to be completed in March 2013. But as for the inside, she just laughs. There’s no plan in place yet but she’s crossing her fingers that when there is one, she’ll be back again as Project Engineer.
Read more about the building’s history and recent renovations.