The Smithsonian is taking the next step in sharing its massive collection with the public. Today marks the release of the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer, a tool that will eventually allow students, educators, and laypeople to interact with 3D models of the museum's 137 million artifacts. The tool will also let users 3D print scale models of artifacts (including fossils and the Wright Brothers' aircraft) that could otherwise never be touched.

The Smithsonian began archiving its collection in 3D back in February, and has since scanned 20 items in its collection. The museum has already scanned virtual models of the USS Philadelphia, one of the few gunboats used during the Revolutionary War, and the fossilized remains of a wooly mammoth. Vince Rossi, 3D digitization coordinator with the Smithsonian Institution, told Smithsonian Magazine Blog that scanning the mammoth was "challenging not only because of its size, but also its complexity" — scans had to be captured from 60 different vantage points to capture every bone and angle.

A reason for 3D printing in the classroom

While the models available to the public right now are only a tiny fraction of the museum's artifacts, the Smithsonian intends for a few dozen to be scanned each year. And with MakerBot pushing hard for every American classroom to be fitted with its own 3D printer as part of its MakerBot Academy initiative, students may soon have the chance to build their own 3D models of history's most treasured artifacts.