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Unwrapping the Cosmic Buddha

The intricate images that cover this monumental standing Buddha are very difficult to see. Traditionally, scholars have made rubbings with black ink on white paper to study such low-relief carvings. But digital scanning and CNC milling make another approach possible.

Curator Keith Wilson asked OEC to create a touchable model of the details on this Chinese limestone figure, known as the Cosmic Buddha. They provide a rare glimpse into early Chinese visions of the Buddhist world, a kind of symbolic map depicting a cosmos with an infinite number of realms. Traces of pigment on the surface suggest that the dense design was originally painted, which would have made the scenes easier to perceive.

The 3D Digitization Office provided hi-res images of an “unwrapped” view of the Buddha—that is, with the details laid out flat instead of “in the round.” OEC model maker Chris Hollshwander then ran the scans through specialized software to prepare them for the Haas CNC Mill. The CNC Mill can work with a wide variety of materials, so Hollshwander experimented, machining 3D models out of polyurethane board and aluminum. This technique can be used to create touchable models of any scannable object in the Smithsonian collections.

The finished model serves as a case study for how to translate 3D scans into “unwrapped” touchable models that can be used for research and education in a variety of ways: to provide hands-on learning opportunities for low-vision visitors in the galleries, or for teaching rubbing techniques to new scholars. Wilson plans to use multiple copies for experimenting with the application of pigment, to explore ideas about the figure’s original appearance.


Cosmic Buddha

Left to right: The Cosmic Buddha Buddha Vairochana (Pilushena) with the Realms
of Existence China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77, Limestone
with traces of pigment, Freer Gallery of Art; Shoulder detail; Traditional ink
rubbing; 3D scan

Flattened or “unwrapped” digital view with scene divisions indicated; Haas CNC Mill at work milling the Buddha out of synthetic board
Cosmic Buddha relief models

Left to right: synthetic board and aluminum models of the unwrapped Buddha

Thanks to contributors Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art, Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; Chris Hollshwander, Model Maker, Office of Exhibits Central


OEC at the Staff Picnic in Rain and Shine

Undeterred by intermittent showers, OEC staff shared their work with the greater Smithsonian
community. It was a chance to connect with other exhibit and museum
professionals. Even the Secretary stopped by to say hi.


SI picnic Image 1

The OEC Model Shop showcased the ability of its 3D scanning and printing technology with a range of
3D-printed models.


SI picnic Image 2

OEC brought an assortment of low-tech interactive exhibits to talk about exhibition design and fabrication. The mailbox in the foreground allowed visitors to read historic postcards for the exhibit Mail Call.



SI picnic Image 3

The OEC Graphics Shop featured the capabilities of its direct-to-surface printer, which can print on a wide variety of substrates, including acrylic, metal, corrugated plastic, MDF panel, and seat cushion (all pictured).


SI picnic Image 4

Jia-Sun Tsang, of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, discusses the green conservation-grade exhibit cases that were developed in partnership with OEC.