When it comes to new media, the Smithsonian is all in

Michael Edson on how the Smithsonian uses crowdsourcing and transparency to further its mission

The Smithsonian Institution epitomizes the phrase “an embarrassment of riches.” With 137 million physical objects in its collection, and 28 distinct museums and research centers, you could spend the rest of your life there and not see everything.

Michael Edson, who serves as director of web and new media strategy for the Smithsonian, got his start cleaning cases in one of the art museums. He now oversees the Institution’s online presence, which he talks about in the following interview. He’ll expand on many of these same topics at the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo.

Where the Smithsonian’s online content comes from:

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010

Michael Edson: Each museum collection — sub collection, the zoo, the portrait gallery, natural history museum — really functions as its own world. And 99 percent of the content creation happens deep within the Institution’s 28 separate research and collection units. It’s a real innovation at the edge environment. We argue in our web and new media strategy that so much great work can happen in those edge environments, where you’ve got subject matter experts, collections, the public and a little bit of technology expertise really close together. That’s the hothouse where these great things grow.

Pretty much any model of web and new media production you can think of is being done somewhere in the Smithsonian. We have 6,000 employees, 137 million physical objects, and incredibly brilliant and talented people. So we do outsourcing. We do in-sourcing. We do lightweight development. We do great big monolithic development. The trick now is establishing a framework — we call it a Commons — where these edge innovators can have the basic tools they need to be successful.

How new media exposes more of the Smithsonian’s collection to the public:

ME: At some of the art museums I’ve worked at, the ones I know the numbers for, maybe two percent of their collections are on display. And I think institution-wide, the number is probably quite a bit lower than that.

I remember coming to the Smithsonian as a kid, having seen a certain painting in a catalog from the Hirshhorn Museum. I came down to the Smithsonian on the bus to see that painting. I guess I was a little surprised, but it made sense quickly when the person at the front desk said, “Oh, that’s not on display.” This happens all the time. It’s just part of the physics of owning this many physical things and the extensive exhibition and display. But the reality of dealing with so many atoms, as opposed to bits, is that it’s a barrier to scholarship. It’s a barrier to learning. It’s a barrier to research. It’s a barrier to management. All of the pressures and opportunities that normal businesses face dealing with bits apply to us, too.

There’s tremendous opportunity in establishing digital surrogates and good digital records for the deep collections. We think if we can do that, not only will we be able to run more efficiently as a business, but we’ll also enable vastly more people out in the world to innovate, create, and understand research using our primary resources.

What’s involved in getting items online:

ME: For the National Portrait Gallery or something like that, it’s fairly obvious how you could take a picture and get a good high-resolution image of it in 24-bit and put it online. For the Kitty Hawk Flyer, it’s unclear how you would put that online in a way that gives that same kind of fidelity to the experience.

I’ve got a paper up that I wrote about a year ago called, “Imagining a Smithsonian Commons.” And I used the example of SpaceShipOne, which hangs at the National Air and Space Museum. It’s the first privately financed aircraft to take a human being into outer space. It won the X PRIZE. It’s this monument to innovation. And on the Smithsonian’s official websites, the canonical record for that has a small picture, a cool QTVR of the cockpit and a couple of paragraphs of canonical curatorial text. But if you go to Flickr and you enter SpaceShipOne there are, last time I checked, over 2,000 photographs of that same spaceship: launch photos, cockpit photos, photos of the thing being made, photos of the party afterwards, photos of people’s SpaceShipOne tattoos. Then you go to YouTube and you can see videos of the thing flying. Go to Wikipedia and you get a long article with hyperlinks.

I think the epiphany to us — to me certainly — has been that the Smithsonian is one important but small part of the way people are remixing and making their own knowledge creation. And we can help the work of others by providing a certain trusted repository and having a certain openness toward the information we have and share. But we need to exist in an environment that includes many different kinds of knowledge creation and communities. We’re just one small part of that, and that’s very humbling for an institution like ours. But ultimately, it’s very liberating. I love Kathy Sierra’s work: Our users are heroes in their own epic journeys, and our job is to make them successful.

How mobile devices enhance the museum experience:

ME: A mobile platform that you can have in the museum with you that allows the curatorial team to say more about a work, or provide multiple perspectives, presents an incredibly seductive idea. We don’t think anyone’s really hit a home run with that yet.

We realize people are bringing mobile devices with them. They have instant access to deep, broad content about the things in front of them that, in many cases, might surpass and be more relevant to that person’s own learning journey than what we’ve chosen to silkscreen on a wall. The stuff we put on the walls is a seed that can grow into many different kinds of plants outside the walls of the institution.

I’m really focused on the impact of Moore’s Law on the mobile platform and the fact that in a few years, the phones people are going to be bringing into our museums are really computers. They’re going to be 20 times more powerful than they are now and that opens up opportunities for research, scholarship, education, entertainment, reuse, on and on.

What the Smithsonian would do with an iPad for every patron:

ME: This is a thought experiment, I know, and a hypothetical question. But I might take those donated iPads and sell them on the open market and use that money to buy a thousand Flip cameras and give them to every curator and intern and web person we have. Our visitors tell us they want access to the pictures and the videos, but they also want to connect with Smithsonian experts, the person who’s been studying asteroids for 35 years and can tell you the history of the universe in five minutes. Unlocking those person-to-person connections is how things start to get exciting.

As a footnote to that: We had the Smithsonian 2.0 Conference a year ago. All of the people we invited were so thrilled to meet the Smithsonian curator or to go to a collection storage facility and open a drawer and see an incredible feathered headdress or a rock that was almost as old as the universe. And they told us, “unleash that.” It’s not so much about the platforms. It’s about the people and the connections.

Social media and the Smithsonian:

ME: Everything we’re trying to do from a strategic and tactical point-of-view is to establish social media as part of the toolkit that’s available to the staff of the institution and our public. In the last epoch, we were measured by the success of our internal experts. And in this coming epoch, we’re going to be measured by the success of our networks at large: our social networks, our professional networks. People are going to be connected. Ideas will be sharable and portable.

For example, we have a research fellow at the National Zoo who is responsible for a program of setting remote-controlled infrared triggered cameras in wildlife locations all over the world. He’s got more than a million photographs of animals taken by these cameras that the Smithsonian cannot in a million years afford to catalog, understand and describe. He’s starting to build a social network through Flickr of citizens, enthusiasts, researchers and scientists who are cataloging those photographs. He says the data he’s getting from this project is as valid as any professionally developed data. It’s proven to be extremely reliable and it’s unlocking incredible discoveries about wildlife habitats and speciation.

Also, our Flickr Commons experiment has absolutely shown the value of open — almost public domain — publishing of Smithsonian assets. We get return from people identifying photographs, identifying sitters in portraits or people in backgrounds, places, times, correcting our official label copy. There’s a harmonious cycle. We learn from what they do. They learn from each other.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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