Smithsonian 2.0

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Last week the “digilluminati” gathered in Washington, D.C. for an invitation-only gathering of minds dubbed “Smithsonian 2.0.” If you think the word “museum” denotes an institution that concerns itself only with the past, you’re in for a pleasant surprise because many museums the world over have been plunging into the social media waters to extend their learning (and, OK, marketing) opportunities. When an institution as large as the Smithsonian jumps into the 2.0 pool, you can expect there will be more waves than ripples.

According to the event’s website, the two-day Smithsonian 2.0 event explored

how to make SI collections, educational resources, and staff more accessible, engaging, and useful to younger generations (teenage through college students) who will largely experience them digitally. Over 30 creative people from the web and new media world [met] with 30 Smithsonian staff members to generate a vision of what a digital Smithsonian might be like in the years ahead.

The Smithsonian 2.0 blog provides a glimpse into the presentations and conversations at the event. I especially like this to-do list created for the Smithsonian by Bruce Wyman of the Denver Art Museum. There’s nothing on the list that will be particularly revelatory for social media experts or those who read museum + tech blogs like Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0, Seb Chan’s fresh + new(er) blog for the Powerhouse Museum, or conference.archimuse.com, but it’s useful to see all these ideas and tips articulated in one place that I suspect will be read by museum folks from around the country and the world.

Another good source of information about the event is this post on Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog. (Tip: Don’t skip the comments on this post.) Cohen’s dissection of the event–and the (virtual) place the Smithsonian finds itself–is thoughtful. I’m going to quote him at length here because I think what he’s saying bears repeating:

Given my background in mathematics, I began to think of Smithsonian 2.0 as existing between Smithsonian 1.1 and Smithsonian 2.9. That is, implicit in “Smithsonian 2.0? were some incremental moves forward that could be done cheaply and quickly—Smithsonian 1.1—and a very large, expensive, complex project that would lead Smithsonian into Web 2.0 and beyond—Smithsonian 2.9. I believe both of these models can be instructive to institutions beyond the Smithsonian, whether large or small.

Smithsonian 1.1 would involve a much more aggressive use of social media and technology that’s already out there, to begin to take many small steps and make many small experiments using what is currently available. The Smithsonian has already done some of this, of course: the National Museum of American History has a blog, SI has a small presence on Flickr Commons, and museums have begun to tweet.

But these are relatively scattered, uncoordinated attempts, frequently done by younger, tech-savvy SI staffers in their spare time. The Smithsonian should be doing much, much more of this. For instance, given their expertise and excitement about SI’s holdings, it seemed clear to the digerati that every curator should have a blog, even if infrequently used, to recount tales of objects. While visiting the Museum of American History’s vaults, it was clear that a huge audience would subscribe to a weekly or daily video podcast that covered incredible treasures that rarely see the light of day, such as Abraham Lincoln’s handball, or what the Smithsonian just collected and is preserving from the inauguration of Barack Obama.

jtrant made a very insightful comment in response to this post. In part:

there are many stories and many groups wanting to tell them. rather than try to institutionalize diversity, museums need to enable it.

besides, if what my research for steve.museum shows is true, museums *can’t* do this for people, because they don’t think like the general public. when i compared popular tags to museum documentation, more than 80% of the terms were new… and the vast majority of those terms – again over 80% – were considered ‘useful’ by museum professional staff.

public and professional interpretations can and will co-exist… and SI 2.0 is happening outside the Smithsonian as we speak on flickr, facebook and in all the other places people are creating and curating their own culture. semiotic democracy is with us. it may be that the choice is whether museums participate with the people rather than the other way ’round.

You can also learn more about the tensions expressed and explored at the event by listening to Episode 37 of Digital Campus, which, among other topics, takes a look at “the cultural challenge of squaring the curator’s focus on the actual, authentic object with the free-for-all, non-hierarchical nature of the web.”

Nina Simon was surprised when she read the list of people invited to the event:

Do you have any sense of whether Smithsonian is tapping “digerati” of the museum field, like Shelley Bernstein, Seb Chan, Gail Durbin, etc. for advice and guidance? I find it strange that they invited the VP of Target.com but not the heads of technology from large, public museums doing innovative work in this direction already. I was also interested to see how many people came from industry and academia, and how few from the more civic, cultural side of Web 2.0 (I’m thinking of people like Tara Hunt, folks behind MyBarackObama, etc.). Was there a heavy “new business model” focus or was this about delivering on core mission in the 21st century?

Beth Harris was disappointed that women were underrepresented at the event:

I wondered how the “digerati” were chosen. Having recently moved from higher education, to a position as Director of Digital Learning at the Museum of Modern Art, I was disappointed to see that 80% of the guests were men, especially when so many women are doing such great work in this particular area, and in the wider arena of theorizing about technology and culture generally. What strikes me as remarkable is how little the imbalance at the event has been remarked on (I twittered about this a few days ago and got a few responses).

Regardless of who was there and who should have been, It’s time for the Smithsonian to be thinking about more outreach to and collaboration with potential supporters; after all, last week on the Today show on NBC, Bill Kristol specifically singled out the Smithsonian as a pork expenditure that didn’t belong in the stimulus package.

It’s worth taking a look at what the Smithsonian is already doing. It’s no stranger to the web, as its Facebook page demonstrates with its links to 13 Smithsonian blogs, photos on Flickr, Twitter streams, and 17 Smithsonian-affiliated podcasts. These podcasts and blogs make curatorial insights more accessible to everyday folks, but they aren’t, as jtrant points out above, user-generated, remixed, or crowdsourced.

What do you think a crowdsourced Smithsonian would look like? The Smithsonian’s museums, after all, belong to the American people–how do you see people participating? Via steve.museum, the museum social tagging project, once the Smithsonian digitizes its 137 million objects? By creating guerrilla audio tours of the institutions? How would you remix the Smithsonian? And in so doing, would you differentiate between contributions by curators, lay experts, and Joe the Internet Surfer, as museum professional Lisa hopes?

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