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Digitizing natural history specimens for online access with Artec Space Spider

Challenge: To provide access to a collection of natural artifacts to students and lecturers during pandemic lockdown.

Solution: Artec Space Spider, Artec Studio

Result: A virtual library of high-quality 3D scans of specimens available to use and download for free.

Nature has always been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for people. Climbing pads mimicking the biomechanics of gecko feet, antibacterial micropattern that mimics the form and function of sharkskin, or the aerodynamics of the famous Japanese bullet train inspired by the shape of a bird’s beak – these are just a few examples of how models, systems, and elements of nature are used to solve complex human problems and design challenges.

As Janine Benyus, biologist, author, and co-founder of Biomimicry Institute famously said in her TED talk: “We are surrounded by genius. We were never the first ones to build [anything].”

Global urbanization, mass migration to cities, and new travel regulations leave us humans with a limited selection of opportunities to get in touch with all the facets, recipes, and blueprints that this greatest invention machine has to offer. However, there are places in the world where you can access thousands of authentic natural history specimens without having to go into the wilderness, fly to a remote island, or wade through impenetrable jungles, unbearable heat, or cold. One such place: the Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab.

Nature Lab

Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab (photo courtesy of the Nature Lab)


Founded in 1937 by a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, long-time faculty member, scholar, teacher, and accomplished American painter, Edna Lawrence set out to, in her own words, “open students’ eyes to the marvels of beauty in nature...of forms, space, color, texture, design, and structure.”

The Nature Lab is not your typical laboratory. What started as a small collection of natural specimens that Edna picked up during her summer road trips for her Nature Drawing class in the 1920s, turned into 1,286 species (including shells, butterflies, minerals, skeletons, seed pods, and taxidermy) in 1937, and had grown to up to more than 25,000 items by the time she retired 38 years later.

Today, the Natural History Collection consists of nearly 80,000 individual specimens, which students and faculty members of RISD have unrestricted access to, whether it’s a science, art, or design project they are working on.

“There’s definitely no other department in the university or standalone place that is anything like the Nature Lab and its Natural History Collection,” said ​​Benedict Gagliardi, Staff Biologist at the Lab. “Students can get a fully immersive experience in there – they can open cabinets and take out shells, bones, and pieces of driftwood and taxidermy animals and actually interact with them: draw, feel, move around, and spell them.”

“It’s a very welcoming environment. The notion is like: we’ll go as deep as you want to, but we aren’t going to push it on you,” said Dr. Jennifer Bissonnette, Interim Director of the Nature Lab. “And if you have questions, we have three biologists on staff that can help you dig deeper and do whatever it is you want to find out about.”

Apart from the main collection, the Nature Lab also houses collections of insects, lichens, corals, and other small-scale specimens, collections of organic and non-organic materials, living plants, rare natural history books, as well as provides access to the latest imaging equipment to explore all its variety of natural artifacts at multiple scales and dimensions. One of such imaging tools that the team at the Nature Lab added to their kit in 2015 is Artec Spider.

Adding a 3D scanner to the toolkit

“Part of what we are doing here is creating a space for the visualization to take on new directions,” said Dr. Jennifer Bissonnette, Interim Director of the Lab. “We were thinking of novel ways of appreciating those organisms, surfaces, and textures that we have here, and Artec Spider was a perfect fit because of its state-of-the-art ability to capture really fine resolution of different structures.”

Designed to scan small objects with fine details in high precision, Spider is an ideal solution for digital preservation of natural and historical artifacts in their true shape and color. Powerful, accurate, yet lightweight and easy to use, Spider became a welcome addition to the Lab’s collection of imaging equipment, alongside professional microscopes, action cameras, GPS trackers, and other tools for research and documentation of natural materials, specimens, systems, and processes.

Nature Lab

The Nature Lab uses Artec Spider to digitize their 80K+ Natural History Collection (photo courtesy of the Nature Lab)

Since the moment the 3D scanner was available to the Lab faculty members and students, it quickly became one of the most popular tools. “There’s something encouraging in being given access to such a high-level piece of equipment and being able and trusted to use it,” said ​​ Gagliardi. “It makes that part of your project so more personal and connected to it, rather than just saying: Oh, can you scan this for me?”

Going digital

3D scans of taxidermy specimens, natural history objects, and materials that students captured with Spider at that time were initially stored on external hard drives by Gagliardi and his team and were solely available only to their creators through direct inquiry. But the whole process changed when the pandemic hit. Since students and faculty members couldn’t come to the Lab and interact with its collections onsite, there needed to be a way for them to access those specimens – at least some of them – digitally. That’s when Benedict came up with an idea to upload all the 3D scans they already had to Sketchfab, an online 3D model sharing platform, and create a Virtual 3D Specimen Library:

“When the pandemic hit, losing that sort of tactile learning was really difficult to substitute with any sort of digitized representation,” said Gagliardi. “But man oh man...that digital collection has been a huge benefit for the teachers who were struggling to digitize their curriculum. 3D scanning with Artec Spider was hugely, critically important to give that three-dimensional understanding of things.”

The Lab team decided to make all the models in the library freely downloadable, so both students and faculty staff could use the files, abstract them, and do whatever they wanted to make them their own.

Nautilus Shell 3D model made with Artec Spider

Having exact 3D replicas of various specimens and materials also allowed the team to bring a new perspective to their biomimicry classes:

“One of the topics that we’re working on in the lab is called biomimicry, in other words, using nature to inspire design solutions,” said Bissonnette. “Having a digital collection of different natural forms and materials allows us to analyze them, and take them to other software where we can start building off structures to modify for whatever design intention.”

The new approach also made it possible to lend the items that previously were available for “Lab only” use:

“In normal terms, we can lend out lots of specimens like library books: a hand-made glass box with a spread butterfly in it, for instance, certain types of shells and all kinds of small specimens,” said Gagliardi. “We have red dots on the things that you cannot take out. 3D scanning gave us the ability to lend those out in a way, so people could interact with them after hours or remotely far away. It really changed the way this lending process was working.”


Another advantage of having a digital catalog of 3D models online was an opportunity to connect to a global community of creators and researchers:

“We had so many exciting comments from people who incorporated our 3D scans in their own artworks, video game designs, and other disciplines,” said Gagliardi. “There are also biologists who helped us identify some of our specimens. For example, what we’ve always labeled as a chinchilla skull up on Sketchfab, turned out to be a muskrat skull.”

On typical workflow

During the pandemic, the scanning process had to change, too. With almost everyone working or studying remotely, it was Gagliardi who started scanning different specimens by requests from lecturers or students to replenish their newly created.

“Taking it into a virtual space suddenly became not just an interesting thing for students and faculty to be able to do, but critical to be able to still get access to the collection,” said Bissonnette.

Although each type of specimen is unique, most objects scanned in the Lab follow the same two-scan workflow.

First, an item is scanned one time around on top and the sides, then flipped over for another scan of the bottom and the sides. The team also uses a foldable light box from ORANGEMONKIE to achieve high-quality, evenly lit texture, and an electric turntable for smooth and steady scanning.

“From the first time I used it, I was blown away, especially by seeing the process of what Artec Studio software does,” said Gagliardi. “You get a raw scan and you think ‘cool, this looks like a thing that I’m scanning,’ but the end product, the finalized mesh, is so refined compared to the initial scan that I’m still in awe every time I get the final product out.”

After scanning is complete, the team processes the data using Autopilot mode in Artec Studio. Once done, the final model is exported directly to Sketchfab as is, or in some cases, first to Blender for additional post-processing. “The scans that Artec Studio puts out are pretty high quality, so often we just export the scan and we’re ready to go,” added Gagliardi.

Currently, the digital collection consists of 500-600 scans with almost 400 already uploaded and available for download on Sketchfab.

On future plans

Through launching their virtual library of 3D scanned specimens, the Nature Lab team gave access to some of the finest natural artifacts from Edna Lawrence legendary collection – and not only to the students and faculty members of the Rhode Island School of Design, but public schools and institutions who may not have access to such resources. It has also allowed them to connect and collaborate with other universities and museums that also use Artec scanners, photogrammetry, or other digitization methods.

“I continue to get comments, messages of thanks, and inquiries from professionals and non-professionals in the art and science world, out of RISD,” said Gagliardi. “Recently, a project manager from one of the world’s largest providers of museum technical services contacted me to verify that it was ok for them to use our painted turtle model for a casting project. I’m amazed by the wide reach and variety of connections this platform and unique resource has helped foster.”

Now back to training individual students how to create their own 3D models with the Artec Spider, the virtual collection continues to be of huge value to students, teachers, and other users. There are still remote courses at RISD that make significant use of the digital collection as a learning tool, and it has likewise been a valuable asset as the school expands Continuing Education programs via digital platforms to a wider audience.

“We definitely plan to continue building our remote digital resources,” said Gagliardi. “The pandemic has taught us so much about how valuable they are. We would have had a very different year with regard to our success in being remote if we hadn’t had Artec Spider.”

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