One of the most culturally exciting benefits of 3D scanning technology is the creation so-called “virtual museums”: online collections of digital 3D models representing artifacts, animals, artworks, or virtually anything else you’re likely to find in a regular museum. These virtual museums probably won’t replace their physical ancestors, but they do open up amazing new possibilities in terms of accessibility.
The University of Dundee’s D’Arcy Thompson Museum, for example, has just digitized a large part of its zoological collection, and has already had more than 10,000 virtual visitors from more than 25 countries accessing the digital 3D models. That’s probably more volume and variation than it could have expected in foot traffic, and the figures will likely grow even higher as the museum adds more and more items to the online database.
Incredibly, the 3D scanning project has helped to not only bring the museum’s collection to a wider audience, it has actually served to improve the accuracy of the collection. One item was uploaded to the online collection and labeled as an Indian Elephant, but an expert viewing the specimen online disagreed with the classification and immediately let the museum know. After some discussion, museum experts agreed that the specimen was in fact the skull of an African Forest Elephant.
“This is a great way to make parts of D’Arcy Thompson’s amazing collection more accessible to audiences around the world, particularly appropriate in this anniversary year when there is huge international interest in D’Arcy’s work,” said museum curator Matthew Jarron, speaking of the 100th anniversary of D’Arcy Thompson’s highly regarded book On Growth and Form. “We can also use the scans within the museum, by printing the models in 3D so visitors can handle them,” Jarron added.
Erolin added that, while she would like to digitize every single specimen in the museum’s collection, the project will have to work on a sm aller scale for the time being. Her students will continue to 3D scan and digitize certain specimens, while some 3D models—especially those of fragile specimens—will even be 3D printed so that (real) visitors to the museum can pick them up and handle them. These 3D printed items could also be used as teaching aids.