Smithsonian X3D

Touch, explore, and interact with amazing 3D artifacts

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Expert evaluation by Common Sense



Subjects & Skills

Arts, Critical Thinking, Science, Social Studies

Price: Free
Platforms: Web

Pros: Access 3D digital models of amazing artifacts, along with intriguing content and articulate, principled commentary.

Cons: What’s available (for now) is quite limited; options for interactivity and exploration (especially for younger ages) could also be developed.

Bottom Line: A unique, highly credible resource to add to your classroom repertoire -- if a topic matches your course and kids.

Sophisticated language and technical, mildly uncomfortable content (like info about the sex appeal of orchids) means that the content will fit high school students best. If you find a topic of interest for late-elementary or middle school, try whole-group presentation via projector in order to increase teacher guidance and support.

High school biology teachers can compare the orchid and its partner bee side by side while studying form and function, co-evolution, or pollination. Definitely include the related video. Incorporate the Gunboat Philadelphia or the Wright Flyer into American history or even literature classes to deepen students’ connections to the time period, lifestyles, and experiences. Advanced art courses may use the site to explore lighting, color, and modeling. Across content areas, use the videos to introduce 3D imagery technology: Laser scanners, CT scans, and photogrammetry all appear in action with thoughtful commentary.

Smithsonian X3D provides users with interactive 3D images of museum artifacts. Beneath the home page’s impressive rotating banner are menu tabs for the 3D models (about 30), tours (for 10+ of the artifacts), and a video gallery. The Educators tab has a general welcome and intro to using the site, including tips for using the site with access to a 3D printer. From the home page, look for the “Getting Started” image (or link at the bottom) for a clear set of how-to’s.

The X3D artifacts are as diverse as mammoth bones and a Wright Flyer. The online collection also includes 3D images of archaeological sites and -- stunningly -- a supernova. Users can take 360-degree spins around the interactive objects, and many can be seen along cross sections. Tool let users manipulate lighting, color, and other visual elements to help them explore in greater detail. All images include (rather sophisticated) supporting text, and the tours walk through pinned locations within an artifact, focusing on interesting details.

Seeing these objects online isn't the same as seeing them at the museum -- and it might be even better. Kids can view objects from every possible perspective (like the back, bottom, or side). They can zoom in to see the structures of an orchid, zoom out, and even view along transects. Should you have access to a 3D printer, you can literally print your own Amelia Earhart suit or dolphin jaw. It's impossible to overstate how cool this is.

Kids can work through the prepared tours, reading thoughtfully developed content, or explore an object on their own. Short, captivating videos focus on the technology and techniques behind creating the 3D images and feature narration from diverse professionals who thoughtfully connect their work to creating a better world. While all of this is terrific, there's not actually that much for kids to do on the site. Adding some pop-up quiz questions, links to background or extensions, or tutorials on underlying science, social studies, or art concepts would all help.  Additionally, giving teachers a little more guidance on how to integrate the content into their lessons would help, too. As it is, though, this site's rich potential for exploration could be a powerful asset in a teacher's bag of tricks.

Learning Rating

Overall Rating

Smithsonian’s true to its “Seriously Amazing” tag. Ancient artifacts, fascinating imagery, and intriguing content will draw kids in. Alas, a limited collection and minimal amount to “do” may curb enthusiasm.


Kids zoom and manipulate objects, expanding perspectives and details. Interactive tools (measuring) and rich captions provide meaning, though more content (basics, definitions, extensions) could expand learning.


User-friendly icons, labels, and a clear Getting Started page make even the spatially clumsy feel confident. Video captions and audio options for written text would improve accessibility.

Common Sense reviewer

Community Rating

A 3D View into the Past

This a step above the use of basic photographs of primary sources. This website can add insight to a student's understanding of a culture or historical time period. I love that there is background information included with the pieces, so students do not have to do additional searching to find information that may be relevant to the way they look at the piece and how it fits into the historical perspective. Being able to look at something in it’s 3 dimensional state also adds to the experience that a flat piece of paper just can’t give I also love that it is from the Smithsonian Museum and there is little worry about authority and reliability of the website. As a librarian I will definately be recommending this site to a variety of my teachers of all different subjects.

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