Ignite Smithsonian examines the evolution of museums and culture

The first Ignite Smithsonian highlighted the intersection of museums and technology.

As we all struggle to make sense of a world rapidly changed by technological disruption, the institutions that preserve cultural memory are becoming even more important. Their nature, form and offerings are inevitably changing with the times.

The Smithsonian Institution,, as one of the preeminent museum systems in the world, is profoundly engaged in capturing our culture’s digital transition. Yesterday, that institution hosted the inaugural Smithsonian Ignite in the “attic of the country.”

“I was really gratified to see colleagues from all over the museum world, government, and unrelated fields propose talks,” said Michael Edson (@mpedson), director of web and new media strategy for the Smithsonian. “We don’t normally get to do this kind of fluid event that flows across disciplines and organizational boundaries. It felt right. It’s the role the Smithsonian should be playing: a convener.”

There were no shortage of big ideas encapsulated in the Ignite Smithsonian talks, all of which will be available online individually over time. Below are just a few of the themes that resonated in the hours afterwards.

Museums are thinking about big data

The rise of data science has come alongside unprecedented interest in the economic impact of data on society. As with other sectors, museums are thinking about how to manage and use big data in the future.

Brett Bobley (@BrettBobley), the chief information officer for the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities and the director of the agency’s Office of Digital Humanities, focused his Ignite talk on the challenges of big data. Bobley highlighted the perils and possibilities that all of that information presents to museums.

“How do we use big, big data for research?” asked Bobley. That’s the question that the Digging into Data Challenge is meant to answer. The challenge, as Bobley explained, is to address the ways “big data” changes research in the humanities and social sciences.

Steve Midgley
Steve Midgley of the Department of Education talks about the Learning Registry. (Credit: Michael Edson)

Another Ignite Smithsonian talk by Steve Midgley (@SteveMidgley) looked at a similar theme, exploring how gaining more insight through data can improve education in a digital learning registry. Capturing and analyzing the data generated by people’s interactions with media or objects can offer unusual insight into human behavior and learning patterns. “Tim O’Reilly calls this stuff ‘data exhaust‘,” said Midgley, “and we all need to be paying much closer attention to it.” Midgley, the deputy director of education technology at the U.S. Department of Education, spoke at length about the Learning Registry at last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit.

Rethinking museum websites

Koven Smith
Koven Smith asks “What’s the Point of a Museum Website?” (Credit: Uncommon Fritillary)

“We are making great Conestoga wagons in the age of automobiles,” said Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces), director of technology at the Denver Art Museum. “In a world of Facebook and YouTube, why would anyone come to a museum website?” asked Smith.

Smith adapted a concept from software development and argued for more “agile content development,” where the experience of audiences is not limited by static websites. He wasn’t committed to any one vision for what the future of the museum website will be, but rather what they should do: focus on being better enablers, not producers. “What we actually need to do is enable access to content, whether that content is produced by us or others,” Smith suggested. “Focus on creating what is unique to us.”

Touchscreen virtual exhibits

With more than 100 million iPhones sold and at least 15 million iPads in the wild, digital exhibit designers have new canvases to create upon. As more Android devices and tablets are sold over the course of 2011, the number of touchscreens in the hands of museum-goers will expand even more.

Simon Sherrin (@thesherrin) technical manager for the Victorian Cultural Network in Australia, focused his Ignite talk on touchscreen museum software that’s changing how virtual visitors can navigate exhibits. Sherrin shared the example of ImAMuseum.org, where the touchscreen interface has already been put to good use. The Tap Tours software is open source and can be used by any institution willing to implement it.

The rise of citizen curation

The important role that professional curators, preservationists, archivists and other expert staff play at museums isn’t going away, but it is shifting. Online, museum staff can now also play roles of conveners and community builders, working with citizens interested in helping to digitize and organize information.

“It is the responsibility of museum as stewards of memory to help citizens think critically,” said Neal Stimler in his Ignite talk. Stimler’s presentation described how the spread of connection technologies changes the dynamic between traditional institutions and the people who visit them, either online or in person.

Related to that point, research from the Pew Internet and Life Project highlights how important it is for museums to both acknowledge and respond to digital information trends

Fiona Rigby (@nzfi), content manager at DigitalNZ, looked at how the National Library of New Zealand is thinking like a platform provider as it works with citizens to digitize their cultural heritage. The Digital New Zealand online platform includes a digital forum and an open API. The latter has enabled developers to create applications and tools using open data, several of which were developed during New Zealand’s “Mix and Match” mashup contest. The winning mashup, NZ Walks Information, mashes up the location data for walking trails all over New Zealand with Google Maps.

Augmented reality is a reality

Constant connectivity and mobile’s next act are on the minds of museum curators, given the devices that now increasingly exist in the palms of citizens. A 3-D vision of ‪an “augmented city” ‬by ‪Keiichi Matsuda ‬provided ‬an ‪eye‬-‪catching‬ vision of a near future during one of the interludes at Ignite Smithsonian.

This video held additional resonance, ‪given the context of an‬ ‪Ignite ‬t‪alk on augmented reality‬ delivered ‪by ‬Margriet Schavemaker (@marschave), head of collections and research at the ‪‬Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. “Space hacking” can allow people to populate cities with an augmented reality of museum objects. These digital constructs can enable museums to hold dialogues with new audiences, far from the physical instantiations of the collections themselves.

Schavemaker’s presentation was a reminder of how much of the future already exists in our present, offering several examples of how augmented reality is being used in museums today.

Creating space for creativity

Innovation often has its genesis in people having fun. The Smithsonian’s CTO, Carmen Iannacone (@SI_CTO), gave his staff permission to “go out of your way to allow some experimentation into your life.” He suggested that managers should allow for a 15% decrease in productivity to explore ways to increase productivity by 50%. As Alice Lipowicz reported for Federal Computer Week, the Smithsonian CTO shared his perspective about knowledge workers and some tips on learning and using new media tools during his Ignite talk.

Iannacone’s perspective built upon the ideas Philip Auerswald (@auerswald) shared in his Ignite presentation. “If we don’t have playgrounds, there isn’t a protected area where creative ideas can happen,” Auerswald said, emphasizing the importance of such spaces from infancy through adulthood. Auerswald is behind a proposal to reinvent the Smithsonian Arts & Industries building as a Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on the National Mall.

Ignite + Smithsonian

“People seemed to really understand and appreciate the Ignite-Smithsonian equation,” said Edson. “Ignite stands for something in the tech and media industries, the Smithsonian stands for something in the broader culture, and putting them together resulted in something new and interesting. I’d like to do the event again and see what happens.”

Much more detail about the Ignite Smithsonian speakers, their Ignite talks and related resources can be found at the Smithsonian’s wiki.


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