by Bernard K. Means
On midday of the second day of August 2016, I left the optimistically named Richmond International Airport outside of Richmond, Virginia, for the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. The flight was relatively uneventful, other than a very tightly scheduled transition between flights at Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas. My destination was the Western Science Center, located just over an hour west of John Wayne. This trip was sponsored by the Smithsonian Affiliations program and its director, Harold Closter. Harold and I met over a year ago in May 2015 at the Smithsonian Affiliations conference, where we talked about virtual curation, especially three-dimensional (3D) scanning and 3D printing. Harold was particularly interested in the potential for virtual curation to extend museum collections from a fixed physical place to the unlimited boundaries of the internet.
As part of his duties, Harold travels to various museums and other places that are members of the Smithsonian Affiliations system, and one of these locations is the Western Science Center. He began talking to the director of the Western Science Center, Dr. Alton Dooley, who revealed that he already knew of my work from his time at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH). The Virtual Curation Laboratory has 3D scanned and 3D printed a number of fossils that were in the collection at VMNH that Alton oversaw, including fossil whale vertebra, giant ground sloth claws, and even some giant beaver bones. Harold, Alton, and I ended up communicating via email and decided that a similar 3D scanning project at the Western Science Center would be beneficial—so I ended up in Hemet, California, for a couple of days (bracket by two days of flying).
After watching the sun rise over the Home Depot parking lot, and doing a bit of catching up on emails that accumulated on my day of travel, I set off for the Western Science Center to meet with Alton and researcher Dr. Kathlyn Smith of Georgia Southern University. Kathlyn is here to study mastodon tusks, and my visit was timed to coincide with hers. We discussed what items that would need scanning with the NextEngine 3D scanner. I started my day by 3D scanning mastodon and mammoth teeth with the NextEngine scanner, and ended with a prehistoric camel skull that exhibited damage caused by a large predator—perhaps an African lion. I also 3D scanned one artifact, an arrow shaft straightener, that was made available by Darla Radford, Collections Manager at the Western Science Center.
In addition to the NextEngine 3D scanner, I had with me the Structure scanner. Although of lower resolution than the NextEngine, the Structure scanner is easier to use for large things—literally mammoth things! During the course of the day, I used the Structure scanner on mastodon tusks and a cast of the mandible of a 10-foot-tall mastodon nicknamed Max—and a plush toy mastodon that the museum has as its mascot, and that is also named Max. Alton was impressed by the ease of the Structure scanner for recording large items, and plans to purchase one for the Western Science Center.
My goal this trip was also to integrate some photogrammetry, but this proved more challenging than expected. Some of the mastodon tusks and other Ice Age animal remains are still in their field jackets, so they are heavy and challenging to move—and in some cases fragile. This meant that for some tusks, I could not get sufficient images around the items to obtain a full 3D model.
Throughout the morning, a few students from the Western Center Academy charter school located adjacent to the museum stopped by to watch 3D scanning in action and to examine the few 3D printed items I had brought with me. One of the students had experience with 3D printing, so I scanned him with the Structure scanner and sent him a copy that he can print or modify at his leisure.
On my second and final day of 3D scanning at the Western Science Center, I picked up fellow researcher Katy at her hotel at 7:45 am so that we could get to the Center by 8 a.m. Today, the Center’s staff was going to open up the case that held the skull of “Max” the mastodon so that Katy and Alton could take some measurements and I could do some 3D scanning. Center staff was going to open the cases at 9 a.m., an hour prior to the Center’s opening to the public, which left an hour for Katy and I to do some other work. I started the NextEngine scanner on a groundstone artifact known as a “cog” stone, while Katy went back into the collections. Alton meanwhile pulled out some samples for 3D scanning with the Structure scanner—modern elephant dung. Alton is creating an exhibit on what mastodons ate, and how we learn this, so mastodon dung was needed. Since the Center has no mastodon dung, I 3D scanned the three samples of elephant dung—of varying size and shape—and we can use the digital models to mathematically increase modern elephant dung to a size worthy of the largest mastodon known in the western U.S.
The fateful hour arrived, and we proceeded to the main exhibit hall to begin opening the cases and preparing for a morning of work. Most of the actual work would take place after the Center opened to the public—allowing visitors to get an inside look into modern paleontology. As the enigmatic “cog” stone’s 3D scanning was completed, I broke the NextEngine 3D scanner down and moved it to a table within the Center’s main exhibit gallery.
Our main goal with this scanner was to 3D scan the distal femur fragment from “Max” the mastodon for further analyses, especially relative to size determinations. I was joined by Aubree Coelho, a high school student from the Western Center Academy, who quickly picked up on how to use the Structure scanner. She spent the morning using the Structure scanner to record the Max’s tusks, femoral fragment, and even helped teach Darla Radford how to use the 3D scanner to record Max’s mandible.
After all the measurements were made, and the femoral fragment was 3D scanned, Max’s skull, mandible, femoral fragment, and tusks were returned to their case. His pelvis, which we also 3D scanned, was rolled back under the reconstructed mastodon that towers over the real bones. One of Max’s thoracic vertebra was kept out of the exhibit so that it could be 3D scanned with the NextEngine 3D scanner in a secure laboratory setting—especially as visitation picked up and the chance for someone inadvertently affecting a scan increased. But, first, I set up the NextEngine 3D scanner to 3D scan an American Indian vessel collected from the region.
For lunch, we went to “Big Daddy’s Philly Cheesesteaks.” I saw this as preparation for next week, as I will be 3D scanning in Philadelphia—but more on that at a later date.
After lunch, I set up Max’s vertebra for scanning. This was a bit challenging because of its size and shape, and so its 3D scanning took up the remainder of the afternoon’s time for using the NextEngine. At the same time, I used the Structure scanner to scan some mastodon and mammoth fossils in the collections repository area, including the mammoth mandible for the specimen dubbed “Xena.”
I ended my 3D scanning efforts just before 5 p.m. so I could attend Katy’s lecture on her research. She did a spectacular job discussing her research into mastodon tusks, and her presentation included a number of humorous slides. Katy also explained her statistical analyses in a very accessible manner, and her presentation garnered a healthy set of questions from the assembled audience.
As I write this, I am sitting in the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, waiting to fly back to Richmond. I want to thank the Western Science Center for being such open and gracious hosts, and the Smithsonian Affiliates program for making this possible. I hope to return some day, but in the meantime, I have a large number of 3D scans to process!
Update: The visit did make it into a local newspaper:
2016 Hemet Science Center Mastodon Goes High Tech. The Press Enterprise, published August 5, 2016. Electronic document, http://www.pe.com/articles/max-809933-center-western.html, accessed August 6, 2016.