Museums have collected and preserved artifacts of the past for millennia. Now rapidly evolving technologies like 3-D scanners are presenting institutions with new tools for preserving, interpreting and sharing the past. Kojo talks with thought leaders at the Smithsonian Institution about the future of museums and the practical challenges of digitizing the past.

This is a special WAMU 88.5 broadcast in partnership with the Future of Information Alliance.


  • G. Wayne Clough Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
  • Nick Pyenson Curator, Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History; Distinguished Lecturer, Paleontological Society
  • Guenter Waibel Director of the Digitization Program Office, Smithsonian Institution

Watch The Full Broadcast

Watch full video of our special broadcast from the Future of Information Alliance event at the National Geographic Auditorium.

What Is 3-D Digitization?

3-D Scanning At The Smithsonian

Smithsonian Collection Of 3-D Objects


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington and broadcasting live from National Geographic's Headquarters, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.

  • 13:07:04

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWild card here at the National Geographic. Today we're exploring the future of the pest, in partnership with the Future of Information Alliance at the University of Maryland. Picture yourself at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, face to face with a wooly mammoth skeleton thousands of years old. What if you could get past the barrier and look at the fossils up close? Actually touch them and feel the texture of the ancient bones. With 3D technology, you may soon be able to get that close without risking a reprimand from security. As the Smithsonian Institution digitizes its collection in 3D, it's connecting us to the past in whole new way.

  • 13:07:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIPeople around the world can now go online and explore 3D models of artifacts, like the wooly mammoth, virtually. And with a 3D printer, they can even create a physical replica of their own. The technology is also creating new opportunities for scholarship, helping curators unlock long held mysteries within the Smithsonian collection. Here to discuss how digitization is transforming museums and the work they do is Wayne Clough. He is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Wayne Clough, good to see you again.

  • 13:08:14

    MR. G. WAYNE CLOUGHThank you, Kojo. Glad to be here. Thank you.

  • 13:08:19

    NNAMDIGuenter Waibel is Director of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office. Guenter, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:25

    MR. GUENTER WAIBELIt's a real pleasure to be here, Kojo.

  • 13:08:30

    NNAMDINicholas Pyenson is Curator of fossil marine mammals in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum. He is also a distinguished Lecturer for the Paleontological Society. Nick Pyenson, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:47

    MR. NICK PYENSONHappy to be here.

  • 13:08:50

    NNAMDIAs you can hear, we are joined by a studio audience here at the National Geographic Society, but you can join us by telephone. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can send email to How do you think museums can stay relevant in the digital age? You can send us a tweet at kojoshow using the hashtag fiaumd. Or simply go to our website,, where you'll also be able to see all the slides that we'll be using during the course of this show.

  • 13:09:19

    NNAMDIWayne Clough, many of us still have difficulty wrapping our head around 3D technology. A machine that builds physical copies of 3D designs in minutes, just like science fiction. How does this kind of cutting edge technology, well, enhance and fit in to the work of a 167-year-old national institution?

  • 13:09:41

    CLOUGHWell, I think it really comes back to, I think, I like to think of the very fundamentals of how museums, and especially a fabulous resource like the Smithsonian, works or should work. And it's a matter of democratization. It's a matter of sharing our great resources in a more extensive way than we've been able to do before. Because many of the items that you just referred to may actually not be on display for the public at any given time, and for long periods of time.

  • 13:10:09

    CLOUGHAnd yet, the public has helped pay for us to collect these objects. So, as a result, they deserve to see them. And teachers and students and lifelong learners can learn from them. And so, three dimensional technology gives us a new way to share the fabulous resources that the Smithsonian has.

  • 13:10:26

    NNAMDIYou know, some time ago, when you took this job, you said you no longer wanted the Smithsonian to be referred to as the nation's attic. It was not a term that you planned on using, yourself, again. Do you think this technology might be the one that puts the nail in the coffin of that term, so to speak?

  • 13:10:43

    CLOUGHI'd like to think so. You know, we have a new way of looking at the Smithsonian, and we refer to the Smithsonian as seriously amazing. And that's what we really think it is. It is one of the most amazing resources in the world, and we want to share more of it with the people who want to see it.

  • 13:11:00

    NNAMDIGuenter, museums, libraries and archives are all working on moving in to the digital age. The National Gallery is creating high resolution images of its art collection that users can explore online. The Library of Congress has made a digital collection available in a searchable online database. The Smithsonian, too, has included digital copies of images, audio and video, online. But to what extent is the 3D program a continuation of those efforts, and to what extent might it be different?

  • 13:11:31

    WAIBELYou know, if you think about it, the Smithsonian has 137 million collection objects, and a lot of those collection items are actually three dimensional. You know, there's very few things that can adequately be represented by just taking a digital image of it. If we have an airplane, if you have a digital image of an airplane, there's only so much you can really see and so much you can take it. If we have a 3D scan of an airplane, like the Wright Flyer, which we scanned for Smithsonian X3D, you can now spin that airplane around, you can investigate the curvature of the wings, which is a key component of why that plane actually flew.

  • 13:12:10

    WAIBELAnd you can really get into the story behind the story in a whole new and different way. So, for us, it's really crucial to figure out how can we bring these priceless collection items to the public in the most compelling way? And that little jump, going from two dimensional to three dimensional, is just a really big step for the Smithsonian.

  • 13:12:32

    NNAMDINick, the Smithsonian collection is not static. Researchers and curators like yourself are advancing the institution's work in fields like Paleobiology. That can mean uncovering and studying fossil specimens to understand the past and learn what it tells us about today. How can 3D technology play a role in that research?

  • 13:12:49

    PYENSONThat's a great question. Paleontology, for the most part, is -- uses traditional methods that have not changed much in several hundred years. And that is to say the fundamental information comes from rock outcrop. You have to find the fossils, and it's all part of this arc that we do in museums of bringing the information from the world out there and preserving it for posterity. As legacy for study, as legacy for knowing about the world, and as legacy to share that information with everyone.

  • 13:13:17

    PYENSONIn particular, with Paleontology, and I happen to work on very large objects such as whales.

  • 13:13:23

    NNAMDIWe'll get to that.

  • 13:13:23

    PYENSONThey, so, 3D provides an important tool that can actually insert itself at any point in that process, from the moment of discovery to its eventual accession and deposition in a museum. And that's an incredibly powerful thing. Here we have a 3D print, capturing a moment in research time, right on the table here. This is a miniature 3D print of a large fossil whale skeleton that was studied in Chile, along with my Chilean collaborators. We had a very time sensitive and impossibly large scale project. And that's where Guenter and his staff really came in and provided an important solution.

  • 13:13:25

    NNAMDITalk a little bit more about that project in Chile, because it involved the skeletons of, it's my understanding, 12 Baleen Whales, and you quickly found that 3D tools were crucial at that excavation site. How come?

  • 13:14:13

    PYENSONI didn't have an answer when we originally found that site, and I realized the scope, the number of skeletons -- there's well over three dozen skeletons across this one road cut. It was a story of geopolitics. A road construction company was expanding the Pan American highway, and as it cut into a cliff, found skeleton after skeleton. We were called in. This was the last day on project, originally funded by National Geographic Society, and I realized that we had a gigantic problem.

  • 13:14:40

    PYENSONI like to say I don't wish a whale skeleton on anyone. It's a logistical nightmare. And that's true for a living whale, where we tend to -- most people encounter them, not at sea, but when they wash up dead on the beach. And then it's kind of a logistical problem. What do you do with this smelly whale? The same is true for fossil whales. These are very large bones, distributed over a large area. And that would be just one skeleton.

  • 13:15:02

    PYENSONWe had dozens of skeletons, so I didn't have an answer at that moment in time. But I knew that context was crucial. I needed to know their arrangement, their position, their orientation, what the bones look like. And so it took me a while to realize that we actually had this nascent group here at the Smithsonian, that was Guenter's office, and I was very, very fortunate in being able to secure the support of National Geographic and, more importantly, the logistical support of Guenter's staff, to come back down to the Atacama within a few weeks time.

  • 13:15:35

    PYENSONBecause the road construction company was continuing its work. And we captured that data. And so now, even though the fossils themselves, which is part of the patrimony of another country, we can share those and archive them online. And I like to say there's dissertation's worth of studies to be done on these digital data sets. We have digital avatars. And it's worth saying that the original material stays in Chile, but it's still locked away in these large burlap covered plaster jackets. That's how paleontologists have secured fossils for hundreds of years. It would take many more decades to actually study those fossils, if we were gonna do it manually.

  • 13:16:12

    PYENSONPrepare the bones out from the rock. Now we have these digital copies, like you can see right above us on screen, and you can see online, actually, today, if you go to Interact with those models, measure them, study them. This is all about releasing that information to the world. It goes back to the democratization aspect the Secretary was talking about.

  • 13:16:32

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, this is a conversation about digitizing the past and the use of 3D at the Smithsonian. And we're talking with Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Guenter Waibel is Director of the Smithsonian Digitization Program, and Nicholas Pyenson is Curator of fossil marine animals in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian's Institution's Natural History Museum. You can also call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to

  • 13:17:07

    NNAMDIAre you a researcher, educator, or history buff who would use the Smithsonian's digital collections? Tell us how. Guenter, among the objects that the Smithsonian has digitized, there is a 3D model of a supernova, as well as a 3D representation of the Liang Bua Cave, where archaeologists believe they may have discovered the fossils of a new species from the homogenous. How exactly do you go about digitizing something as large as a cave site or an exploding star?

  • 13:17:37

    WAIBELSo, let me walk you through, a little bit, the 3D digitization process, because it's, I think, illustrative. So, we have a number of different techniques we can bring to bear. If we digitize something that's fairly small, like the Lincoln life masks I have in front of me, we use an articulated arm laser scanner that paints on laser -- onto that object, and then captures the geometry of the object. If we are trying to capture a much bigger site like the Liang Bua Cave you've mentioned, we have a laser that sits on a tripod. And the laser spins 360 degree angles and everything it sees, it picks up the geometry of.

  • 13:18:13

    WAIBELSo if you move that laser into different positions of that site, you can capture a complete 3D model, just as the one we have up at And then, you also referenced the supernova.

  • 13:18:27


  • 13:18:27

    WAIBELThat's actually a very, very special case where we didn't use a traditional 3D capture tool to create that data set. We used data that was captured by our colleagues at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. They have telescopes that work in a variety of different ranges, and we've combined the data of infrared telescope, of line of sight telescope and of other telescopes together into a 3D model. So that's not a setup that's traditionally used, obviously, for 3D digitization, but we could post process that data into a 3D model, and it's quite remarkable.

  • 13:19:08

    WAIBELBecause you can now, if we 3D print out that supernova, you can hold the death of a star, which is a supernova, in the palm of your hands. It's quite a teaching tool.

  • 13:19:19

    NNAMDISpeaking of challenges, Nick, the 3D printed model of the five million year old whale fossil, from the site in Chile, is now just a fraction of the actual size. But you say you're working on printing a life size replica of that fossil, and it would be the largest 3D print of its kind. What does it take to 3D print an object that is some 26 feet long?

  • 13:19:43

    PYENSONIt takes, well there's work at every stage of the process. There was the back breaking work actually collecting that information in the field. And so, Guenter was mentioning all the different ways that you collect digital information about the world out there. Because 3D is a lot of different tools, actually. We kind of -- it's an umbrella term for a lot of different approaches to be able to document physical objects and physical spaces.

  • 13:20:07

    PYENSONOne tool in particular that we used was this high resolution laser arm scanner that we managed to bring out into the middle of the (word?) Desert and built a whole tent around one of the most perfect whale skeletons. We could actually probably even bring it up on It was one of the better preserved skeletons and so we decided to really apply this fine high-resolution technique to it, which unfortunately meant painting with laser light as Guenter was mentioning many, many times. So each pass of the wand -- of the laser arm would add more and more detail. This took about six days of work to do about 10 meters, 30' of whale skeleton.

  • 13:20:47

    PYENSONSo the problem now then becomes not so much data in but data out. We have more data going into that single data set than we can actually render in any one form. And that includes 3-D printing because no matter how good this is, the real thing is still better. And actually 3-D printing is great but plaster casts using silicone molds, that's still a better more faithful representation. We can actually put that under an SEM microscope and still get quality data.

  • 13:21:16

    PYENSONAnd then the last type is actually this creation rendering 3-D printing. Not everybody has access to a 3-D printer that can print at that large scale. And that's really through innovative partnerships with private industry that we're able to achieve that. So we can provide the datasets but we really need these partnerships with forward-thinking industries that can really help us achieve these goals.

  • 13:21:41

    WAIBELSo just a little more detail on how the whale print is actually being created. There is no 3-D printer that can print a whale of that size in one goal. So we're having it assembled from a variety of tiles there about -- I think I remember they're about 40" on the long dimension. And they get delivered and then they get fused and it will be hung in the National Museum of Natural History on the wall.

  • 13:22:07

    NNAMDIWayne Clough, the Smithsonian has been the gatekeeper to many important pieces of our history. And to protect them it keeps them behind glass or in a fenced-off area. Putting digital or 3-D digital copies online breaks down that barrier between the public and the artifact. Do you think that has the potential to change how we, the public, experiences and interacts with the museum's collection?

  • 13:22:30

    CLOUGHWell, absolutely. And first I want to say, you can see why it's such a joy for me to come to work every day because I get to work with two folks like this who are absolutely at the top of the state of the art. But there's no question that this is a tremendous tool for now today, but also if you look out in the future because already we can send some of the smaller 3-D image files to schools. And on a relatively cheap printer they can print out these objects that ordinarily none of us could ever touch with our hands because they're considered such vital objects.

  • 13:23:02

    CLOUGHWe've been having discussions as, Will IM, you know, black-eyed peas. Will IM is very interested in (word?) education and computer printing. And he wants to help kids who grew up if he -- well, in the projects as he puts it -- and help them get excited about life in another way. And he wants to produce a really cheap printer that you can have in your home. So you can imagine now, we can take these objects that traditionally none of us have ever been able to truly touch or access and share them with people.

  • 13:23:31

    CLOUGHAnd Guenter and his folks also have gone so far with other colleagues in the National History Museum to work with the Native American tribes who have objects that nobody can touch. And in some cases funeral objects which will get buried. And they have given us permission to make 3-D copies of these. And then they can take them back and share them, you know, with their own people and see them where they ordinarily would not see them themselves.

  • 13:23:57

    CLOUGHAnd so it's become a tremendous tool for education, a tremendous tool for people who respect their culture, where they came from and who they are.

  • 13:24:04

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned young people because we have students here today from the Barry School, which is partnering with the Future of Information Alliance. They're with us and you can probably expect to hear them before the microphones pretty soon when we come to our question and answer session. First, we've got to take a short break, but we're still inviting your calls at 800-433-8850 if you're interested in what the Smithsonian is doing with 3-D digitizing.

  • 13:24:29

    NNAMDIYou can also send email to What do you think you can learn from a digital copy of a historic artifact? What about a 3-D printed replica? Would you still want to see the original in person? You can send email to If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. You can also go to our website and join the conversation and look at the slideshow there. We're coming to you live from the Grovner Auditorium at the National Geographic Society. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:26:42

    NNAMDIWelcome back from the Grovner Auditorium at the National Geographic Society. We're discussing digitizing the past in general and the Smithsonian's 3-D digitizing in particular. We're talking with Wayne Clough. He is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Nicholas Pyenson is curator of fossil marine mammals in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution's National History Museum. He's also a distinguished lecturer for the Paleontological Society.

  • 13:27:10

    NNAMDIAnd Guenter Waibel is director of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office. And you can call us at 800-433-8850. Wayne Clough, Digitizing the entire Smithsonian collection would take 260 years and that's at a rate of one object per second, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which makes the process not only time consuming, but expensive. The Smithsonian is already in a tough situation financially because of the federal budget cuts from sequestration.

  • 13:27:42

    NNAMDIHow will the Smithsonian find the resources to continue digitizing its collection? Or we got an email from Janet who says, "Just how much does digitization 3-D cost? Does the Smithsonian have adequate resources? Where's the funding coming from, especially in times of federal budget cuts? And is there a way for members of the public to contribute to the effort?"

  • 13:28:02

    CLOUGHWell, the answer to that last one is yes. I'll get to that in just a minute. But clearly, yes, we have some budget challenges on the federal side of our budget but we're very fortunate to be a trust. And that means we have a private side of the Smithsonian. And so one of the ways we approach this is by building partnerships and also finding willing donors and donors who are very excited about the things that we're doing.

  • 13:28:28

    CLOUGHAnd so we have many, many wonderful corporate sponsors for what we do as well as individual donors who are helping us with a lot of the work that we're talking about here. But in addition we're looking for volunteers. And we have created now a web page for volunteers who want to participate with the Smithsonian in our digital efforts to convert, for example, some of the cursive thousands and thousands of documents that we have that are written in cursive into digital files so all of us can share and see these wonderful documents that have been hidden in the past from the public.

  • 13:29:01

    CLOUGHAnd so we're going to create a way for digital volunteers to work with us. We put up a BETA site with zero advertisement and we had 1100 people sign up almost immediately. Keep in mind that we have over 6,000 physical volunteers at the Smithsonian who love the place. But that's 1100 new volunteers who just showed up in one day. And so I think a lot of people can help us by joining us through tasks that we can define in a way that our digital volunteers can help us. So we'll be looking for digital volunteers. And obviously if anyone wants to make a small contribution, we'd welcome that as well.

  • 13:29:37

    NNAMDIYour turn, sir.

  • 13:29:38

    AUDIENCE MEMBERYes sir. This has been a very informative experience. Could you enhance that by explaining what's on the table in a little more detail.

  • 13:29:46


  • 13:29:48

    WAIBELSure. So what you see on the table are 3-D prints of some of the collection objects we've digitized in 3-D which you can see on And I'll just run you through them really quickly. There's a sculpture of a Buddha from the (unintelligible). What you see here is a fairly small printout. This would originally be about 6' tall, so life size. It's a very old object, 1500 years old and there's no relief carving all over its body. And you can explore that carving really beautifully on You can draw out the details really wonderfully. And that's what's so powerful about this tool. You can see things that are sort of difficult to see even in person in front of the object.

  • 13:30:33

    WAIBELAnd then next to it we have an orchid. This is a rare orchid. It's an embria (sp?) orchid. This object funnily enough, is much larger than this in real life because in real life it's only about 5". But what's on the table is a giant orchid. But I promise you it won't bite. The story about this orchid is that it has a very interesting pollination tactic. There's only one particular bee that can pollinate this orchid. And it attracts it through very specific pheromones.

  • 13:31:02

    WAIBELAnd then we have in front of us Lincoln life masks. These are very interesting because they show the aging of a president. The right of me is a Lincoln life mask from 1860. This was when Lincoln was still the president elect. You can see -- I wouldn't say that he looks like a young man but he's looking pretty chipper. Then on the other side you have a life mask of Lincoln where you really see the toll that the civil war took on this man and all the hard decisions that needed to be made.

  • 13:31:34

    WAIBELAnd 3-D printing these, what was originally plastic casts that literally were taken from Lincoln's face in 3-D is powerful because now they can be printed out in schools. And in history class you can have students literally trace the furrows on Lincoln's face to better understand the toll of the war on the president.

  • 13:31:58

    CLOUGHOne quick thing, Kojo...

  • 13:31:58

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:31:58

    CLOUGH...this is Wayne Clough -- about the orchid. You may not know but over half the orchids in the United States are endangered because of habitat destruction and destruction of the pollinators. And so some of the work we're doing in 3-D is simply preserving these orchids before they disappear. And so there's a very significant scientific reason to want to use 3-dimensional imaging.

  • 13:32:21

    NNAMDIBut Guenter, by using the Smithsonian's 3-D data, anyone can print a copy of one of these artifacts and create a tactile replica allowing us to touch and feel the object for the first time. What can we learn more about the object by being able to touch it?

  • 13:32:38

    WAIBELWell, it's not really just about the 3-D print. You know, I know we've brought a lot of 3-D prints in but the discussion really tends to focus there. 3-D printing is really just one of the ways to express the underlying data that we've captured. And the underlying data is really the treasure trove here. The underlying data is what allows Nick to do his research. The underlying data is what allows us to present these models online in a way that lets people actually take measurements on the data.

  • 13:33:07

    WAIBEL3-D data is accurate scientific measurements at its most basic. And you can now do actual research on that data. And that's probably the most compelling use for the data. And then the 3-D prints themselves are also compelling. Obviously, you know, when we look at them, they're -- it's quite something else to be able to hold a Lincoln life mask in your hand, even if it's just a replica or quote unquote "just the 3-D print." But it's important to remember that the original objects contain information that we'll never be able to capture.

  • 13:33:39

    WAIBELFor example, if you have objects in the Natural History Museum, those objects contain DNA. A 3-D print will never contain DNA. So there's a significant difference. And I think these 3-D prints are wonderful for show and tell but they also have limitations that we should be aware of. And the real story is the underlying data.

  • 13:33:57

    NNAMDIYoung man, your turn.

  • 13:33:59

    MEMBERI read recently that they were able to 3-D print like a mini human liver. I was wondering what place that advancement has in the world of printing history.

  • 13:34:11


  • 13:34:11

    PYENSONWell, so I think as Guenter said there's so many different manifestations -- that's a great question -- so many different manifestations of 3-D printing. Right now these are all objects that are printed out of plaster and they're all -- it's an additive process. So layer by layer a machine will actually lay down pieces of plastic. And then it gets fused together, bonded. That's a very straightforward process.

  • 13:34:33

    PYENSONI think what the question was about was could you 3-D print with other materials? And there are people in the biological sciences, biomedical sciences especially, who are very interested in being able to print out of human tissue or out of any kind of tissue. So printing a liver requires to print the fundamental units. And actually I think literally what they do is they put cells down through a printer cartridge and out the head. That's a very -- there's a lot of technological challenges with that. But it sounds like people are making headway.

  • 13:34:59

    PYENSONSo you can think of 3-D as part of the whole -- it's a new frontier that we don't really have answers to quite yet. But in some cases they can offer solutions to pressing questions in different disciplines. And I think that's kind of one of the ways I think about it at least. My day job is a scientist. I get to sometimes play with 3-D prints. And I think that they're very important for telling narratives about what we find.

  • 13:35:27

    PYENSONThe objects for the most part are silent. And it's the job of scientists and anybody in the world to be able to understand them through different narratives. This means something different to me than it can to other people. But by -- but I think the real promise, at least from my perspective, is being able to share that with anybody. It's very tangible. You can tell people to scale and it's amazing in its own right.

  • 13:35:50

    NNAMDIOnto Astrid in Germantown, Md. Astrid, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:35:55

    ASTRIDHi, how are you?

  • 13:35:57

    NNAMDIDoing well.

  • 13:35:57

    ASTRIDI just love your show. The ideas that are coming to my head -- I'm an artist and a jewelry designer. And the thought of being able -- instead of having to go to the Smithsonian and draw the 2-D print that I do, I could just get online and look at the 3-D object and examine it really carefully. And it's just a wonderful idea. My brother was telling me about 3-D printing years ago. Of course I didn't believe him because he's my brother, but -- and he's an inventory so I figure he's probably inventing it. But anyway what I think is exciting about it is that being able to take it to different schools.

  • 13:36:33

    ASTRIDI used to be an academic therapist. And for these children to be able to hold and touch it would make it so much more real to them. It's just so exciting.

  • 13:36:43

    NNAMDIDid you have to take the opportunity to knock your brother?

  • 13:36:47

    ASTRIDPardon me.

  • 13:36:48

    NNAMDIDid you just have to take the opportunity to criticize your brother?

  • 13:36:55

    ASTRIDHe knows I would. I'm his big sister.

  • 13:36:57

    NNAMDIYou could resist it, could you?

  • 13:37:00

    ASTRIDWell, it's embarrassing to have a genius brother and you're the oldest one. And then they go, well what about your brother? What happened to you?

  • 13:37:08

    NNAMDINick, while many audience members have stepped into the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History and explored fossil collections, they might not realize the work that researchers like you are doing behind the scenes of these exhibitions. Could this technology provide new opportunities for the public to understand how the Smithsonian is advancing research and science and history?

  • 13:37:28

    PYENSONSure. I'll speak from the perspective of my museum, which is the National Museum of Natural History. A lot of what goes on at that museum is very much in -- a part of this long legacy of exploring the world out there, collecting information whether it's the original materials or photographs, about our cultural history, our natural history in the world around us, bringing it back to the museum to preserve it for posterity. That's a very important function of museums. And that goes back to the original inception of the idea of why museums exist. That's a 19th century idea for the most part.

  • 13:38:00

    PYENSONAnd here we are in the 21st century trying to justify the continued existence. And I think the collections are at the core. And the people who are in charge of those collections, technical staff, museum curators are responsible not only for their protection and moving ahead in the future, but also for understanding what they mean. And so that's a continual process, like I said earlier, of finding objects in the world out there and bringing them in.

  • 13:38:26

    PYENSON3-D is, I think, one of the potential solutions for making the museum's walls transparent. That's a big issue because for the most part people don't -- if you visit the Natural History Museum on the Mall you won't see people like me. We're busy doing other things, and oftentimes in the world out there, trying to preserve that information. It's additionally that much more important in the modern day because we're experiencing two critical things, geologic scale changes to our physical world within human lifetimes and also a biodiversity crisis. And sometimes those two issues are actually twinned together.

  • 13:39:01

    PYENSONBut the world out there is changing. And what we know about it is, in large part, preserved in museums. So museum curators can communicate what's important about museums. 3-D offers the opportunity to really reach such a large audience that it's tremendously exciting to me. I don't yet have all the outreach tools that -- it's just not part of my training, right, to be able to know how this can best reach specific audiences to communicate core messages.

  • 13:39:30

    PYENSONAnd it is really -- I think this is the most important point -- not a substitute for the real thing. Museums -- stock and trade is the real thing. this is one way, especially through the internet going to You can interact with these objects even from a desktop in Africa, South America, very far afield from the museum. That's something special about the Smithsonian.

  • 13:39:53

    CLOUGHNow I think the other side of this is that just stepping beyond 3-D technology for a moment, we have an app, for example, called leafsnap L-E-A-F-S-N-A-P. and that was developed by some of our scientists working with the University of Maryland and with Columbia University International Science Foundation. And it was originally developed so you could take a picture of a leaf and identify a tree when you're out on a field trip, whether you're a student, teacher, or just a lifelong learner.

  • 13:40:18

    CLOUGHWell, they've added an option now where you can tell us that you took the picture. And once you tell us that, you become part of our citizen science corps because we now know where that tree is, and we're mapping the ranges of trees because of volunteers sharing their information with us. So this is a new side, I think, of the digital technology. It's going to let people participate in our creative processes, and that's the more exciting part. That's really -- it comes back to the seriously amazing thing, the things that Nick and Guenter do, you'll be able to see the inside of it and get more involved and more active in that.

  • 13:40:51

    NNAMDIWell, I mentioned that we had students here from the Barrie School with is partnering with the Future of Information Alliance. Well, they're about to take over. Your turn, young lady.

  • 13:41:00

    MEMBERI was wondering what else do you plan on making with the printer?

  • 13:41:05


  • 13:41:06

    WAIBELAll right. So in terms of 3D printing, again, it starts with capturing the information of the objects, and what we've done to date is really launch a collection of objects that sort of showed the huge gamut, the huge variety of collection objects we have at the Smithsonian, so we've captured things that fly like the Wright flyer as well as the bee that pollinates that flower of there, we've captured things that swim like a whale and like the gunboat Philadelphia.

  • 13:41:46

    WAIBELAnd all of those very diverse objects, working on those has helped us tell the story that 3D digitization is really meaningful in a museum context. And now we're taking a step back and saying, okay, we've now shown how this can have an impact on the museum and how it can really help us revolutionize what museums can do in terms of accessibility. But the thing we don't really know yet, and this is crucial, is how to do this at scale. We know how to do individual objects, and it takes us quite a long time to do them.

  • 13:42:16

    WAIBELSomething small like the Lincoln Life Mask maybe took half an hour to an hour to capture, and then it took a couple of days to post process. Something like the whales in Chile obviously took a long time to capture, and then the post processing could be many weeks. And we now need to figure out if this important -- if this technology is this important to the museum, how can we ramp that up, and how can we not just do dozens of things, but how can we do hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and things?

  • 13:42:43

    WAIBELAnd once we're able to do that, then our selection process can be very, very different. One of the things we could focus on in the near term, are the objects that are laid out in Richard Kurin's new book "The History of America in 101 Objects" -- Smithsonian objects. And that's a natural way that we've already done selection on what's the most important in our collections, what are the objects that really tell wonderful stories. And so we're going to talk about whether we can capture some of those objects in 3D.

  • 13:43:15

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on digitizing the past and the 3D digitizing that's taking place at the Smithsonian. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850, or if you happen to be with us in the Grosvenor Auditorium here at the National Geographic Society, just plant yourself in front of a microphone. We won’t have a great deal of time when we come back, but we'll try to get all of your questions and comments. The number again 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:29

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to live from the headquarters of the National Geographic Society, talking about digitizing the past with Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Guenter Waibel is director of the Smithsonian Digitization Program office. And Nicholas Pyenson is curator of fossil marine mammals in the Department Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum. You can call us at 800-433-8850.

  • 13:45:57

    NNAMDIWayne, you might notice that a lot of kids are lining up to ask about this. How do you think museums can be involved in education, not just inside museum walls, but also in the classroom?

  • 13:46:08

    CLOUGHWell, that's a perfect opening for me to plug my new book, I guess.

  • 13:46:12

    NNAMDIThat was not my intention, but go ahead.

  • 13:46:16

    CLOUGHIt's called "The Best of Both Worlds: The Museums and Libraries and Archives of the Digital Age." And I can plug it because it's free. So all you gotta do it go to Amazon and download it. But basically, what we tried to do was to realize the Smithsonian was doing a number of things at the cutting edge, but we are at the cutting edge in every case. And so I took it on myself with some colleagues to interview lots of other folks at the Library of Congress archives, museums and archives and libraries around the world And there are many great ideas for how we can use the digital collections and bring them to education.

  • 13:46:49

    CLOUGHYou can do it formally, that is, you can develop lesson plans or lesson plans within which teachers can adjust materials that meets state standards, and that are grouped by age group and so forth. So you can do it quite formally. But we also want people to be able to just explore, and so the enthusiasts, if you will, can explore the Smithsonian, and the trick for us is not only to have these digital images, but also to have better access tools, and so we're working hard on doing that, because we'd like people to be able to make these eclectic connections which are so fun at the Smithsonian.

  • 13:47:21

    CLOUGHIf you're interested in music, for example, we have music representations in our Folkways audio collections. We have music in the American History Museum. We have 8,000 instruments in our collection. We have lots of sheet music there. We have music and you can see it in the American Indian Museum because many of the native peoples, obviously, played music. And so we want people to be able to make these connections across the Smithsonian. That's a new thing for us, because we tend to get focused on our museum, so it really gives us a way to reunite the knowledge base at the Smithsonian and allow people to explore to the ends that they want to follow, and then also contact our experts to get guidance on where they go next.

  • 13:48:02

    NNAMDIYoung lady at the microphone.

  • 13:48:04

    MEMBERWhere do you think the technology of 3D printing will be in, say, three to five years?

  • 13:48:10

    NNAMDIHazard a guess, Nick.

  • 13:48:13

    PYENSONI think Guenter can handle this question. But what I -- you can already purchase your own 3D printer from Staples. And with (unintelligible) the miniaturization of technology, we know where this is going to end up. I'd say in five years a lot more people are going to have desktop 3D printers. And that's tremendously exciting, and I think in that way the efforts that we're undertaking at the institution are just at the crest of the wave. Guenter?

  • 13:48:39

    WAIBELThe only other thing I'd add is you don't even need a 3D printer at your desktop in order to get access to 3D prints. There are websites you an upload your models and you can then purchase a 3D print in any material of your choosing. So that's a very, very economic way to get access to this technology because they have -- they can afford better printers than you can afford, but you can just buy a really, really nice 3D print from online in that way. So that's what I recommend to get your feet wet.

  • 13:49:06

    NNAMDIA question along the same lines from Andrew in Silver Spring, Md. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:12

    ANDREWYes. Thanks for taking my call. I just wondered how -- or whether you can capture color and recent activity with this scanner.

  • 13:49:22

    WAIBELSo that's a very good question, and it's something we actually struggle with a little bit. So the laser scanning techniques that I talked to you about earlier really just captures geometry. It just captures the shape of the object, and then we supplement that with a technique called photogrammetry, and that's a very fancy term for basically taking lots and lots of photographs -- traditional photographs. We take them with high-end DSLRs, but you can do the same with your camera smartphone.

  • 13:49:50

    WAIBELAnd then you can post process these images back into 3D models and those 3D models then contain the color from the photographs. And that's what we wound up doing with a lot of imagery you see on We have the underlying laser scan data, and then we mesh that with photogrammetry data that contains color so at the end you have highly accurate geometry and beautiful color for the object as well.

  • 13:50:22

    NNAMDIYour turn.

  • 13:50:23

    MEMBERHow do you get, like, such fine detail and texture when you're printing?

  • 13:50:30

    WAIBELPeople are really, really interested in 3D printing, and I keep want to shift the topic to the underlying data because I think it's more exciting.

  • 13:50:38

    NNAMDII have a question for you about that, but go ahead.

  • 13:50:40

    WAIBELYeah. So I'll -- in terms of how to get the beautiful details, it's really just about the quality of the 3D printer, and the kind of material you're printing in. Those are sort of your delimiters in what you can achieve. A lot of the consumer-grade printers can't print models at the scale that we're showing here right now. These were created on some very high-end printers, and they were donated to the Smithsonian. So with your consumer-grade printer, you will get results that are a little more grainy and that are a little smaller.

  • 13:51:15

    WAIBELBut again, this is just the beginning of a revolution we're seeing here with 3D printing, and all of these technologies will become better and cheaper and more accessible to everybody.

  • 13:51:28

    NNAMDII think Andrew and Alexandria, Va. may have the question that you've been looking for. Andrew, you are in on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:51:35

    ANDREWYeah. So you've talked about the advances in printing and told sort of the output end of it, and I think that the strong advances in the profiting or the analysis, you know, (unintelligible) some of the free and open-source tools that are available for managing or manipulating the 3D image, but as the gentleman was saying, you know, it's all about getting the data on the front end. Even if you can't process it, if you can just only store it, you have to collect it first, and so what are the advances that are coming in the realm of collection, especially in particular in regards to average, everyday human beings having access to collection mechanisms and being able to, you know, create their own 3D database of objects.

  • 13:52:23

    NNAMDIThe scanning and collecting of data before the printing process.

  • 13:52:26

    WAIBELYeah. So if you want to get your feet wet in scanning 3D objects, it's real easy to do. There are free apps that you can download than can help you do this on your smartphone or on your tablet. Again, it's -- the process is called photogrammetry. You take many, many images of an object. If I had my smartphone on me, I could redigitize Lincoln's Life Mask right in front of me, and I could do it fairly quickly. I did this other day at a party and astonished people by capturing a little Russian doll in five minutes, and basically the imagery that I captured got sent off the Cloud.

  • 13:53:02

    WAIBELIt got post processed and what came back a couple of minutes later was a 3D model that I could rotate on my phone screen. And it seems like magic, but it's actually something that's already here, and you can play with and interact with. And those models are actually quite good. One of the things we're struggling with in a museum setting is that when data gets post processed, a lot of times the software that's post processing the data is making informed guesses.

  • 13:53:30

    WAIBELIt wants to make look things really, really good, and that's great when you're working in movies or in another industry, but in the museum setting, we want to have things really, really accurate. And so one of the challenges for us is to be able to clearly the interpolations that the software makes and to say, look, this is an actual data point that was captured off the object. This is real. This is scientific data, and this thing right next to it, that's actually a guess by the software that it made in order to close the mesh in order to create what's called a water-tight mesh so you have a complete surface.

  • 13:54:07


  • 13:54:09

    KATIESo I'm curious. You're mentioned already that, you know, the 3D scan and the print is just one piece of the puzzle. How are you bringing together other information that's associated with that object, the sediment that preserved the whale, the DNA of the orchid, you know, the lithology of statue. Do you have all that information, or what's the future of bringing all that sort of other associated information together with the scans?

  • 13:54:34

    CLOUGHOne of the ways that we think we can address that is, again, by volunteers. There are sometimes volunteers know more about objects than we do. So if put that object up and we ask for help -- a simple example of that was, we had a group -- a team from the Natural History Museum go to Guyana and actually the fish that existed in a river that was being mined. And so there was fear that they would lose the fish. They had so many fish when they came out, about 5,000 or so, they felt they could not identify them all.

  • 13:55:05

    CLOUGHSo they put them up on Facebook, and scientists all over the world provided the metadata for all those fish. And so, I think what you'll find is more and more crowdsourcing in and around a lot of these things.

  • 13:55:15

    WAIBELAnd just in terms of the 3D data we're providing access to right now online, one of the features of the 3D explorer is that we allow curators to create tours of these objects. For the cosmological Buddha for example, which we have up here on the stage, the curator created a tour where you can see the 3D model and rotate the 3D model, but at the same time he's showing you other imagery of comparable sculptures so you can understand, oh, that missing hand that I don't see on this sculpture because it got lost to history, that's what that hand gesture would have looked like.

  • 13:55:54

    WAIBELSo we're trying to recontextualize the objects with additional information and use the 3D model as scaffolding for storytelling, and this is the first experiment. We're hoping to do a lot more with that, and we're also hoping to -- Dr. Clough's point, really engage the public with this. So hopefully down the line we'll be able to open it up so, for example, school children can -- instead of doing a book report, they can create a tour of a 3D module and point out all the different aspects of it that they find intriguing and interesting and they can use it to tell stories.

  • 13:56:28

    NNAMDISpeaking of schoolchildren, we're going to have at least one disappointed school child, because I'm afraid we're out of time. We won't have time for your question, but I would encourage you to buttonhole one of the panelists right after we're through and ask your question anyway. The panelists, Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Guenter Waibel is director of the Smithsonian Digitization Program office. And Nicholas Pyenson is curator of fossil marine mammals in the Department Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum.

  • 13:56:56

    NNAMDIHe's also a distinguished lecturer for the Paleontological Society. Thank you all for joining us.

  • 13:57:03

    CLOUGHThank you.

  • 13:57:04

    PYENSONThank you.

  • 13:57:04

    WAIBELGreat pleasure.

  • 13:57:05

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show." It's produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Stephannie Stokes. Our engineer is Jonathan Cherry and Ailene Humphries (sp?) on site, and Tobey Schreiner back home. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Special thanks to WAMU's IT guru Brian George, along with Ed Sat (sp?) and his tech team here at National Geographic. Thanks to Allison Druin and Ira Chinoy from the Future of Information Alliance at the University of Maryland.

  • 13:57:35

    NNAMDITo learn more you can visit Thanks also to Barbara Ferry from National Geographic and Ann Van Camp from the Smithsonian Institution, and all the staffers from each organization who worked behind the scenes to make this broadcast possible. And finally, and most of all, thanks to our studio audience, and thanks to all of you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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