The Smithsonian Goes Digital

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is home to over 137 million historical artifacts from throughout the whole timeline of human existence. While the museum does everything in its power to preserve these artifacts for future generations, nothing lasts forever. With that in mind, the Smithsonian has begun the arduous process of digitally archiving every item in their exhibits, ensuring that they will last forever—in pixelated form, at least.

First Up: Numismatics

The first stop on the Smithsonian’s Digitization Express is the National Numismatic Collection, part of the Institution’s National Museum of American History. Numismatics, for those who don’t know, is the study and/or collection of currency—coins, folding money, and everything else that’s ever been used as “official currency.”

In a massive undertaking that is now over a year in the making, over 300,000 “proof sheets,” used to print money between 1863 and 1930, are being processed via the Smithsonian’s innovative “rapid capture” digitization technology. Using pneumatic conveying systems and a specially-designed, 80-megapixel camera, the team has been making incredible progress.

$2 worth of American history.

$2 worth of American history.

Prior to the implementation of the rapid capture process, digitizing a single proof sheet could take up to 15 minutes and cost around $10. Not the best stats for a taxpayer-funded project with more than a quarter-million pieces to work with. Now, thanks to that one-of-a-kind digital camera and the pneumatic conveying system, the Smithsonian team is blowing through roughly 3,500 sheets a day, at a cost of less than a buck apiece.

An Ongoing Process

There has been no official announcement regarding what portion of the museum will be digitized next. Even if the 3,500-pieces-a-day pace keeps up (which is almost certainly won’t when the team moves on to larger and more complex items), the sheer number of artifacts in the Smithsonian Institution will keep the Digitization Program Office busy for years.

Ultimately, no matter how long it takes or what the final cost to the taxpaying citizens of this great nation, the Smithsonian digitization project is more than worth it.

Time, war, natural disaster, and theft have already robbed civilization as a whole of some of the most significant historical artifacts and greatest works of art ever created by man. By archiving their gargantuan collection, and offering views online for free (!), the Smithsonian Institution is ensuring that history will remain alive—and easily accessible—well into the future.

Photo credit: Jake Wasdin / Foter / CC BY

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