Dazzling Data: Methods to Engage the Public with Digital Museum Resources

Megan Dattoria Smithsonian Institution


You’ve put energy and resources into digitization and providing online assets to the public, but the public isn’t engaging with them. What now? We all know the infinite potential of the resources we put out- for education, entertainment, creativity, play, and more. Our audiences, however, need to get excited. In this paper, I will present a number of use cases and suggestions for engaging the public with your data. This information comes through the lens of 3-D data via the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO), but the ideas can be adapted to all forms of online resources. I will present 6 general ideas for activating your audiences, as well as lived experiences in applying these concepts with 3-D data: catch them in the museum, excite them on social media, meet them halfway, enrich the data, make the data accessible, and make the data open.


Catch Them In The Museum

Our core mission is to serve the museum-goers who come through our doors, so let’s consider them first. It can be difficult to track the demographic and interest of the online public, but we know one thing about those perusing our halls: they are actively looking for ways to learn. With this in mind, you should feel encouraged to try new things and present your museum-goers with fun, supplemental materials and activities in the gallery.


One of the simplest ways to bring digital content to the gallery is through the use of interactive screens. We have utilized touch-screen kiosks in numerous exhibitions, both in our museums and in traveling shows, to bring interactive 3-D models into the gallery space. One such example can be found in the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibitions Services (SITES) show, Destination Moon, (https://www.sites.si.edu/s/archived-exhibit?topicId=0TO36000000L5O6GAK) which traveled the US from 2017 to 2020 with a crowd-pleasing artifact- the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia. The SITES team considered the extensive online resources available for Columbia when designing this exhibition, so they played a key role in the narrative. In Figure 1, you see inside the gallery where there is a station with 4 individual-user touch screens mounted with the viewer facing the real-life command module. On these screens is a 3-D model of the module with annotated information and a guided tour.

Figure 1(left): View from inside the Destination Moon gallery showing 4 touch screen kiosks in front of Command Module, Columbia

Figure 2(right): A curious child moves a 3-D module of Columbia around with their finger on a touchscreen in the gallery.

3-D digitized objects, and other forms of digital media, can serve as a scaffolding for storytelling about an object. These assets offer new vantage points on your collections, as in this case, the 3-D imagery allowed visitors to travel inside the module to investigate its many dials, and even find hand-written notes on the walls from the astronauts (https://airandspace.si.edu/newsroom/press-releases/smithsonian-3-d-project-sheds-new-light-astronaut-graffiti-found-museums). The 3-D model is used here to expand upon the in-person experience with the object, allowing the museum-goer to have an immersive experience, and then visit the kiosk to dive inside the craft while still observing it from the outside. This is a unique experience that proved to make the exhibition popular enough to frequently have a line going around the block at the host institutions.

Destination Moon is an ideal example of marrying traditional exhibits with digital experiences. The SITES team included the digital assets in their planning for the exhibition and dedicated a substantial amount of budget and intention to utilizing the 3-D assets. A low-tech option to test this process would be to place a tablet/iPad on a secure stand and install that in a free area of an existing exhibition.

Touchable Elements

A unique benefit of digital assets is that they can be interacted with at no risk to the precious museum artifact they represent. In certain cases, these resources can also be turned back into physical objects to engage tactile learners and museum-goers with visual impairment. In the recent exhibition, Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings (https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/anyang-chinas-ancient-city-of-kings/) at the National Museum of Asian Art, 3-D data was used to create a touchable interactive puzzle that prompts the museum-goer to try to recreate the process of assembling a mold for a Shang bronze vessel. The original vessel was 3-D scanned and used to reverse engineer what the mold structure may have looked like when the vessel was cast. Then this was 3-D printed at full scale and tethered to a table. Museum-goers stand/sit before the table and attempt to assemble mold pieces while watching an animation of the mold making process. The 3-D scan data of the Shang bronze was also utilized to create the video animation.

Figure 3(left): Visitors working together to figure out how to put the 3-D printed mold pieces on to the mold core. They fit together in a precise order.

Figure 4(right): View of interactive table with screen above the 3-D printed touchable pieces showing an animation of the casting process.

The interactive puzzle is created to communicate a complex idea, but also to engage the public by challenging them. The vessel that was scanned to create the 3-D data is displayed in a case safely beside the interactive, with protective glass and beautiful lighting as it deserves, and museum-goers learn a respect for the process that brought that vessel to be. These touchable models created from digital resources allow a patinated bronze from 1100 BCE to be reborn in the gallery each day with each visitor.

Mobile Triggers

Your digital assets can be used to provide more information and even bring additional objects into the gallery. We know the limitations of exhibiting an object- it must be assessed, conserved, mounted, and then protected. When materials are particularly fragile, there might be rotations of similar objects in the exhibit so that they are not stressed by being out of protective storage for too long. You can use digital resources to bring every rotation for a case together in the gallery to tell their unique side of the story or to emphasize a pattern. This can be done by displaying them on a screen beside the case, or by simply providing an access point to your online resources. We have recently been experimenting with QR codes (machine-readable matrix barcode images used to store URLs) on exhibit reader panels that the user can scan with their cell phone camera to find a collection of 3-D experiences for objects that can not be on display. This is a way to effectively accomplish the ‘screen’ option above without the technical overhead or upkeep of having a physical screen in the gallery.

An argument for QR codes: this form of link sharing might be considered cumbersome to some, but we have found them to be successful and easily adoptable. Due to COVID 19 lifestyle adjustments, we’ve seen a resurgence of QR code literacy, we believe in part due to non-touch information sharing such as restaurants asking patrons to access their menus via QR codes displayed on table tops. This method also has a minimal technology barrier because it uses hardware that most museum-goers carry around with them- a cellphone. QR codes also no longer require a special application to scan as the capability is included in most cell phone camera applications.

In the exhibition ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas (https://www.sites.si.edu/s/topic/0TO1Q000000cTSWWA2/pleibol-in-the-barrios-and-the-big-leagues-en-los-barrios-y-las-grandes-ligas), also by SITES, the objects from the National Museum of American History (NMAH) version of the exhibition could not travel with the SITES version, but we were able to 3-D digitize many of them. These 3-D facsimiles now stand-in for the physical objects in the host galleries, and museum-goers are prompted to bring the object into the gallery space via Augmented Reality (AR) on their cellphones. QR codes on the panels link the visitor to the 3-D experiences where they have an option to explore the content on their device and activate AR to use their phone camera and screen to place the object before them.

Figure 5: Section of exhibit panel showing how a QR code is integrated into traditional design.


In addition to engaging the museum-goer inside the gallery, we can provide ways for them to take the exhibit home with them to share and learn more through digital resources. There are high-tech solutions for doing this, but a simple method is to provide free, eye-catching printed material for visitors to take with them. In our experience, these materials should be light and portable, fitting into a small bag or pocket.

Figure 6: Postcards for the Pleibol exhibition showing the front side with 3-D renders of objects from the exhibition and the back side showing information about the exhibit and a QR code to access its online resources.

A business card format of 3.5 inches x 2 inches is inexpensive to print and would be an excellent way to share brief information and a link. We prefer 5 inch x 7 inch post cards because they allow for rich imagery and information, and are still fairly inexpensive and portable. In Figure 5 you see a take-away post card for the Pleibol exhibition that includes a description of the exhibit, in both English and Spanish, and a QR code for accessing the digital resources.


Excite Them on Social Media

The most direct way you can choose to engage your audiences with online resources is, well, online! Social media is a direct and trusted method for institutions to inform and interact with the public. You can choose to share your resources through planned, formal campaigns, or to present this information casually and reactive to current trends.

Collaborative Campaigns

A collaborative campaign involves planning with other social media account managers to launch thematic content at the same time, oftentimes with all parties using a custom “hashtag” to connect their posts together across accounts. Hashtags are text beginning with a # symbol and are used as a tagging system on most social media platforms, for example #MuseTech is a great hashtag to follow to see current technology being used in museums. The parties work together to send a similar message, but through the lens of their own collections and content. They can then repost and amplify each other’s content during the campaign, which serves to share audiences and benefit everyone involved. In the case that your museum or program does not have a large social media following, it can be beneficial to plan collaborative campaigns with more established accounts.

Sydnee Winston is the Social Media Coordinator for SITES and Smithsonian Affiliations, and she orchestrated a successful collaborative campaign in 2021 that she speaks to below.

“On Friday, September 17, 2021, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), National Museum of American History (NMAH), Smithsonian Digitization Program Office (DPO) and the Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC) co-hosted a social media day on Twitter and Instagram celebrating the presence of the Latinx community in America’s pastime–baseball.  As an observation of Hispanic Heritage Month, the theme of the campaign explored the nearly century-long history of baseball as a crucial social and cultural force in Latina/o communities across the United States. It also uplifted and highlighted stories from the ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas exhibition now open at NMAH and the SITES’ traveling version of the exhibition which is currently touring around the country.

We invited  all of our Smithsonian colleagues, Smithsonian Affiliate museums, libraries and organizations around the nation, the Major League Baseball Association and other national organizations to join us in sharing photos, videos, objects, quotes, educational resources, and other materials from their collections that explore the history and legacy of Latinas/os in baseball from a variety of different perspectives. These perspectives/lenses included everything from the historically significant presence of Latinas, like the legendary Marge Villa, in professional league baseball, to the importance of local baseball teams in creating community.  The 31  participating organizations helped to amplify the stories shared and created a community of people in a national conversation around #NuestroBaseball.”

Highlight Existing Content

When your digital resources are brand new or related to a new exhibition, they are easy to announce and celebrate on social media; you can utilize the buzz around the exhibit itself to drive traffic to your online resources. What about when those resources are well established and you want to remind your audiences about them? There are many creative ways to reignite interest in resources, and below are a few we have tried with success.

National “_” Day: Doesn’t there seem to be a “day of” everything: National Donut Day, National Talk Like a Pirate Day, International Sloth Day, etc? Though this may seem silly, many of these nationally and internationally recognized days are celebrated on social media in the spirit of fun and information. You can utilize these unique opportunities to connect your resources to topics that are of interest that day. You can prepare for these days ahead of time with a content calendar and target audiences, providing them with resources that they are interested in on the day that they are most interested in them.

Figure 7: Instagram screenshots showing two posts from the Smithsonian 3-D account posted during Shark Week and on Selena Day.

Behind the Scenes: The public engages well on social media with behind-the-scenes or exclusive perspectives that they do not get in the museum setting. Do you have images of objects being digitized, transcribed, or otherwise being transformed into digital resources? Sharing this perspective gives the public an exclusive view, but it also communicates the work and value that went in to creating these resources.

Different Perspectives: A great way to add life and relevance to existing resources is to speak to them from a fresh perspective. Consider others in your organization that could lend a new perspective to topics you have already spoken about. Perhaps you have a collection of images of garments that tell stories of women’s history and how fashion has changed over time. You may have already shared this collection with the curator’s perspective, but there is also the conservation perspective. You can re-share your resources and tell stories of the challenges to conserve and present these objects, which can uncover new details in the images and spark interest in new audiences.


Meet Them Halfway

It can sometimes be difficult to access the specific audiences that would utilize the digital resources you provide if they do not already follow your activity. Given the resources and time, you can work to access these audiences in their own spaces.

Attend Events

A very direct way to access specific groups is by showing presence at events that are made for niche audiences, rather than the general public. For example, in 2019 the DPO collaborated with the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) to put together a simple booth set-up at Spacefest in Tucson, AZ. This is not an event that the DPO normally attends, but we had a very exciting collection of 3-D Apollo 11 objects with guided tours and interactive content (https://3d.si.edu/collections/apollo11) that we knew would interest space enthusiasts. We brought interactive screens, touchable 3-D prints, and a variety of take-aways that included links to the online collection. We found the in-person audience to be receptive, excited, and even thankful for our presence, and those 3-D objects have consistently high interactions rates online as a result.

A low-cost solution to attending these events would be to present virtually or to send take-away materials to the event host. We find that these hosts are often happy to receive input from cultural institutions and most often waive registration fees for non-profits. In our experience attending these events, the audience and the host are most receptive to our materials when they are given freely and ask nothing of the receiver. Rather than selling your resources, your intent should just be to inform and excite.

Create Events

As a cultural institution, you have the authority to create events and opportunities to stimulate groups to leverage your resources. Take time to think about a target audience for your material, may it be educators, life-long learners, creatives, children, movie buffs, etc. You can reach out to these communities on their platforms and through their influencing members to create new opportunities to excite them. In 2019, NASM and the DPO partnered with an iconic member of the maker community, Adam Savage, to create a collaborative project and live building event in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The collaboration, titled Project Egress, involved the unified hatch door from the Command Module, Columbia which is an engineering marvel designed to open in 3 seconds to allow the crew to egress in under 30 seconds. The project is described in the 3-D experience as follows (https://3d.si.edu/object/3d/project-egress-hatch-reproduction:d8c62a94-4ebc-11ea-b77f-2e728ce88125).

“To commemorate this historic event, Adam Savage (former host of Mythbusters, Editor-in-Chief Tested.com) set out to create a life-size replica of the epocal unified hatch. Using advanced 3-D scans of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia captured by the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office, and technical drawings in the Smithsonian archives, engineering student Andrew Barth reverse engineered and CAD modeled the entire hatch, one intricate mechanical component at a time. Artist Jen Schachter recruited a team of over forty makers and fabricators from around the country to contribute to project egress. Referencing the 3-D files and dimensioned drawings, each artist precisely manufactured one piece of the hatch assembly using a process of their own choosing, the resulting sculpture is a patchwork of materials and techniques showing the hand of each builder and the ways we interpret aerospace history and material culture. Project Egress is a celebration, not only of the technology itself, but the thinkers and makers, seen and unseen, who made the first lunar landing possible.”

Figure 8: Project Egress hatch being assembled before a live audience at the National Air and Space Museum by Jen Schachter, Adam Savage, and Andrew Barth on July 18th, 2019.

This event was organized to excite the public about Apollo 11 engineering and history, but also to engage the maker community with our online downloadable 3-D assets. The original scan data, the reverse engineered CAD designed pieces, and a 3-D scan of the resulting art piece are all available online to view in interactive 3-D but also to download for personal recreation (https://3d.si.edu/collections/apollo11). After the project aired on YouTube (https://youtu.be/3jdF1yVBWdc), we saw several makers posting their own fabricated 3-D parts from the hatch on social media and challenging others to do the same.


Enrich the Data

Step outside of your perspective and consider what makes your data useful to the public. You might be aware of the research and educational potential of a collection of images, but place yourself in the shoes of a user accessing your data from the outside with no background knowledge. To make your assets universally useful, it is important to give them context. This both makes the data understandable by a layperson, but it also makes it searchable. Take time to fill out rich metadata for each asset, and connect collections record information and contextual text to those digital assets. When publishing 3-D models, we connect the models with the collections records in our infrastructure and port over any information about the objects that has already been recorded. To create interactive tours, we work with subject matter experts within the museums to write content for the 3-D viewer and often reuse text that has been previously written and approved for exhibit panels. It can be burdensome to create bespoke experiences for your digital resources, so utilize pieces of information that have already been collected whenever possible. Any small piece of the contextual picture is better than nothing at all.


Make the Data Accessible

I will not go into great detail about data accessibility as that is not my expertise. I can, however, stress the importance of considering accessibility requirements in the beginning stages of a project. Assign resources to learn about and comply with modern accessibility requirements for the data type you are releasing. Our resources are for everyone, and we must put effort into minimizing the list of individuals who cannot use them. At a minimum, your resources need to support the use of screen readers and keyboard controls, all images need to have alternative text, and all videos need to have captions. This may require back work and is a challenge to argue for when you are still arguing for digitization in general, but this step is essential and, in some cases, legally required.

James Tiller is a self-identified disabled photographer at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and is part of the Smithsonian’s team working to adapt our digital ecosystem to support the International Press Telecommunications Council’s new accessibility fields. James had this to say about data accessibility.

“The most common reasons I hear from people as to why they haven’t incorporated accessibility into their projects is that disabled people have not expressed an interest, so therefore they are not a target audience that needs to be considered. This is a common fallacy called the Inaccessibility Cycle. For example, a museum doesn’t have alt text accompanying their images, so users with visual or cognitive disabilities can’t access the image data. The museum assumes people with visual and cognitive disabilities are rare or don’t want to access their images, so they don’t need to accommodate them. The cycle continues. When organizations do listen to the disability community, we end up with disability accommodations that can benefit everyone such as keyboards, electric toothbrushes, surgical gloves, audiobooks, and more.

The disability community is the largest minority in the world and it’s the only of the minorities anyone can join at any time. Notably, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been a mass-disabling event, with over 1.2 million people in the US alone becoming disabled as a result of Long Covid. Furthermore, disability disproportionately impacts the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities, making accessibility a critical intersectional issue as these minority groups are underrepresented as museum visitors. Including accessibility when making museum data publicly available is necessary to increasing overall diversity of museum visitors, whether virtual or in person.

Disabled people, like myself, not only have a moral right to have equal access to museum data, in most cases, we also have a legal right thanks to multiple federal laws (https://www.w3.org/WAI/policies/). If you are interested in making your museum’s digital content more accessible, view the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium (https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/).”


Make the Data Open

The Smithsonian Open Access Initiative was launched in 2020 when 2.8 million 2D and 3-D images and data from the Smithsonian’s collections were released into the public domain. The initiative continues today and has the tagline of “What will you create?” encouraging downloading and reusing the open data. As of February 1, 2023, there are more than 4.5 million open access media assets. Just in the first quarter of this year, these files were downloaded 1.5 million times and viewed 28.4 million times! The initiative’s website (https://www.si.edu/openaccess) describes its purpose below.

“Using digital technologies, the Smithsonian can reach a much larger audience than the limited number of people who will ever visit its museums, archives, libraries, and other facilities in person. The Institution aims to reach one billion people worldwide with a “digital first” strategy and an “open access” policy for its collections, research, and education resources.

Smithsonian Open Access allows anyone to download, share, and reuse over 4 million digital media assets (two- and three-dimensional images) from the Smithsonian’s collections. These assets may be used for any purpose, without concern about copyright infringement.”

We’ve seen some astonishing, creative re-uses of our open 3-D data from the public. Vincent Rossi leads the DPO’s 3-D Program and had the following to say.

“The Smithsonian Digitization Program Office began 3-D scanning objects and specimens in earnest starting in 2012. Between 2012 and 2019 the Smithsonian had a fairly restrictive policy for our 3-D content. With the advent of our Open Access initiative in 2020, spearheaded by the great Effie Kapsalis, the institution saw a huge culture shift with our data policy and over 2200 Smithsonian 3-D models suddenly went into the Public Domain. Since the 2020 open access release, we’ve seen some incredible use-cases emerge, from the Apollo Command Module being used in an indie film (https://youtu.be/Rqx5QEF_klI), the Guggenheim downloading our 3-D data of the Woolly Mammoth and creating a 1:1 3-D print for their exhibit  (https://www.guggenheim.org/audio/track/permafrost), a twitter user adapting a 3-D print to create functioning Arduino Morse Telegraph Key, to an artist bringing the triceratops skeleton to life through animation (https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/animated-triceratops-skeleton-06cb55f941d94dc8b95ac46f92d89e7c), the list goes on and on… As we continue to 3-D scan more of the Smithsonian’s collection, I am excited to see even more compelling and unexpected uses of museum data, all fueled by Open Access.”



In addition to providing access to more objects than can be displayed in our buildings, digital resources can provide deeper experiences with objects and reach audiences far larger than our in-person visitors. It was my goal to provide creative and proven methods for engaging the public with your organization’s digital assets. I hope that you can translate these techniques to your data and that you reshare your experiences so that we can all make the most of our incredible resources!



I would like to thank my Smithsonian colleagues for contributing their expertise to this paper and being a general delight to work with: Sydnee Winston, James Tiller, and Vincent Rossi. Special acknowledgement goes to Effie Kapsalis, who is recently passed. Effie blazed the trail for the Smithsonian and other institutions to invest in making cultural heritage data Open Access. Her impacts ripple through the community today and we push forward in her spirit of advocacy and access.



Apollo 11 | 3D Digitization. (n.d.). Smithsonian 3D Digitization. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://3d.si.edu/collections/apollo11


Film Byte Productions. (2020, April 12). Entering the Unknown (Sci-Fi Short Film) | Shot on RED MONSTRO 8K [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rqx5QEF_klI


Project Egress Hatch Reproduction | 3D Digitization. (n.d.). Smithsonian 3D Digitization. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://3d.si.edu/object/3d/project-egress-hatch-reproduction:d8c62a94-4ebc-11ea-b77f-2e728ce88125


Smithsonian 3-D Project Sheds New Light on Astronaut Graffiti Found in Museum’s Apollo 11 Command Module. (2016, February 11). National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://airandspace.si.edu/newsroom/press-releases/smithsonian-3-d-project-sheds-new-light-astronaut-graffiti-found-museums


Smithsonian Institution. (n.d.). Smithsonian Open Access. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.si.edu/openaccess


Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. (n.d.). Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.sites.si.edu/s/archived-exhibit?topicId=0TO36000000L5O6GAK


Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. (n.d.-b). ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.sites.si.edu/s/topic/0TO1Q000000cTSWWA2/pleibol-in-the-barrios-and-the-big-leagues-en-los-barrios-y-las-grandes-ligas


Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. (2023, February 25). Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings  – Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/anyang-chinas-ancient-city-of-kings/


The Guggenheim. (n.d.). Permafrost | The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.guggenheim.org/audio/track/permafrost


Zacxophone. (2021, July 9). Animated triceratops skeleton. Sketchfab. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/animated-triceratops-skeleton-06cb55f941d94dc8b95ac46f92d89e7c


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