Smithsonian 1.1 and 2.9

si_logoI was lucky enough to be invited to the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting this past weekend as one of the “digerati” who were there to prod the institution out of its analog complacency into the digital future. Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my amusement at the “digerati” designation; not only am I a history professor, which seems like an instant disqualification for any noun that ends in -ati, but I’ve always tempered the Vision Thing with the Pragmatic Thing. Having done a lot of big digital projects, my feeling is that using mod_rewrite well is as important to success as modifying ideals. Edison’s dictum about “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” remains true for the digital realm.

Anyway, the real digerati showed up at Smithsonian 2.0 too, and they did indeed provide inspiration: hip representatives of Facebook and MySpace, people with “seriously, that’s your title?” titles like Chief Gaming Officer, and bestselling authors like Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and Long Tail theorist, and Clay Shirky of Here Comes Everybody fame. (Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my envy at not having a cool, bestselling book like these ones.) It was an incredibly well-run meeting; several of the attendees joked that the Smithsonian could get to 2.0 just by placing the people who deftly managed the coat racks in charge of the web servers.

If you really want to get a full feeling for the meeting, the best way to do it (in true 2.0 style) is to read in chronological order the Twitter stream of it. I jotted a lot of notes and ideas there, as did many other attendees. (You can follow me on Twitter @dancohen.) In addition, via the power of Twitter, we captured many excellent points and responses from people around the globe. You should also be sure to read the discussion page on the main Smithsonian 2.0 site, and initial crowdsourced recommendations I gathered before the meeting.

Let me summarize my post-meeting sense of where the Smithsonian should go for those who don’t have time to read a hundred tweets. 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.



Undoubtedly there will be resistance among some curators to doing Web 2.0-y things like podcasts or crowdsourced tagging of their items. These curators believe that such efforts belittle (or “anti-intellectualize,” as one put it) the holdings of the Smithsonian. (As Chris Anderson tweeted: “Response from curators to my Smithonian 2.0 talk suggesting radical things like adding comments to stamp website: we’ll be out of a job!”) Moreover, it’s still harder than it should be for SI staffers to engage in common, modern digital activities. This institutional friction was embodied in the tale of Sarah Taylor, a National Zoo public affairs staffer, who couldn’t get the equipment or accounts she needed to upload video of the zoo’s famous pandas to sharing sites that reach millions.

If Smithsonian 1.1 requires overcoming institutional conservatism, Smithsonian 2.9 will require a moon shot mentality. Digitizing 137 million objects will be enormously expensive, and that’s just the beginning. Service layers will have to be added on top of that digital collection. The young, brilliant David Recordon of Six Apart summarized what the 2.9 project should result in (I’m paraphrasing here from memory):

Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really interested in from the entire Smithsonian collection. When I wake up the next morning, I want in my inbox a PDF of my personalized tour to see these objects. When I’m standing in front of an object in a museum, I want to see or hear more information about it on my cell phone. When an event happens related to an object I’m interested in, I want a text message about it. I want to know when it’s feeding time for the pandas, or when Lincoln’s handball will be on public display. And I want to easily share this information with my classmates, my friends, my family.

This is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement. A tall order, to be sure. But everything in that vision is possible right now, with existing technology. It’s just going to take tremendous will, and the funds to get there. Everyone felt that the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, was going to put a lot of energy and resources into the 2.0 initiative, and I suspect much will come of this meeting. The Smithsonian might not get to 2.9 for a while, but as I was writing this blog post, Sarah Taylor emailed me to say that she was able to get her video online.


james says:

this is a fascinating series of posts…would have loved to have been at “the show”…thanks for sharing!

Nina Simon says:

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 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?

The Smithsonian is unique among US museums. Its “nationalness” is more conceptual than physical, and unlike most museums, it does not primarily serve a local geographic audience. This makes it a prime choice for online extension and “museum without walls” initiatives, but it also makes it hard for the Smithsonian to focus social efforts towards a localized community. Most of the museums that have had great success thus far as “2.0” places do so as they become closer to their local communities. The Smithsonian has the opportunity–and the challenge–to find new ways to support affinity relationships and community among a diverse and geographically distributed audience.

Nancie says:

Given that Clough announced a hiring freeze and budget cuts yesterday, I’ll be interested to see how the Smithsonian will react to what was learned at the meeting. I hope they release the webcasts – did he elaborate on his vision on putting the Smithsonian at the forefront of disseminating knowledge?

Even if the only result is more of a Smithsonian-wide effort at 1.1, that would be a fantastic achievement that benefits the public. If they can articulate what’s successful and what not so successful and why, that would benefit other smaller museums.

Sarah Taylor says:

Thanks for the write up, Dan. I do want to emphasize that the Smithsonian’s Office Chief Information Officer has been working with me since the Flickr uploading problem arose a few weeks ago and I am so grateful for that.

Dan Cohen says:

@Nina: Good points about Smithsonian’s uniqueness and challenges. I’m not privy to the internal process at the Smithsonian and don’t know about their other efforts in this direction, which may involve other museum professionals. I probably overemphasized the business attendees here; note that the attendees list includes very savvy non-profit institutional thinkers like Josh Greenberg, Peter Brantley, and Larry Johnson. And sometimes it’s good to get out of the box by asking for ideas from those outside your normal circles.

Dan Cohen says:

@Nancie My sense is that even with the budget cuts, resources will be put into this effort. I agree that SI 1.1 will be a big advance, and that the entire SI 2.0 process will be instructive to other institutions.

Dan Cohen says:

@Sarah Thanks for the clarification. That’s great to hear.

Eric Johnson says:

The thing that strikes me is that in some ways, Smithsonian 1.1 (let alone Smithsonian 2.9) is simply the Smithsonian coming around full circle. It’s oversimplifying things a bit, but Smithsonian 0.2 was in the middle of the nineteenth century very much a crowd-sourced operation.

Army officers, volunteer naturalists, and avid amateurs sent specimens by the tens of thousands to Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird. In order to manage those collections, he in turn brought in young naturalists (many of whom had no formal schooling in the sciences) such as William Stimpson and Robert Kennicott and taught them to scientifically describe and catalog them. Their schooling, under Baird and others, was almost more an apprenticeship than anything else.

What’s more, Joseph Henry, Baird, and the Smithsonian as a whole promoted an incredible internatinoal exchange of correspondence and scholarly articles. Theirs was a really intentional vision of SI as an information hub for scholarly efforts.

It sounds to me like the Smithsonian might consider returning to its roots. I understand the fears of the curators–after all, they’ve devoted their lives to attaining expertise in their fields. But the institution basically gained its international reputation with experts working hand-in-glove with amateurs. I don’t think it’s a crazy idea to think that it might be able to do so again.

[…] The New Curators Filed under: Uncategorized — Rachel Lee @ 12:42 pm Via A Repository for Bottled Monsters (”An unofficial blog for the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC.”): The Washington Post has a story up about the Smithsonian’s efforts to join the digital age, starting with “Smithsonian 2.0,” a gathering of Smithsonian curators, staff, and such digital luminaries as Clay Shirkey (we wrote about an interview with him here), Bran Ferren (co-chairman and chief creative officer of Applied Minds Inc.), George Oates (one of the founders of Flickr), and Chris Anderson (editor in chief of Wired). [Update: Dan Cohen was also there, and wrote about his responses here.] […]

Rachel Lee says:

Thanks for posting your responses to this event, Dan. I was just reading the Washington Post article about this event, and it’s great to supplement that account with other (insider) perspectives. In my enthusiasm for things like “Smithsonian 2.0” I forget about practical considerations like funding, which is clearly one of the obstacles here.

@Eric: Thanks for pointing out the crowd-sourced roots of the Smithsonian. I didn’t know this, and it’s really interesting to (re)consider “Smithsonian 2.0” as a return to its origins. This seems like an important precedent especially when rethinking the roles of curators – that is, remembering their historical collaborations with amateurs and volunteers.

Mike Rhode says:

Regarding Eric Johnson’s point about the bird collecting of the 19th century – that’s true and donations by Army officers were frequently funneled through the Army Medical Museum (the present-day National Museum of Health & Medicine). We’re currently having the inventories of the 19th century digitized and they’ll be uploaded to the Internet Archive at under ‘Otis Historical Archives’ as creator when we get the e-files back. There’s actually a whole book written on Army ornithologists as well, that should be moderately easy to find.

With funding such an issue, I wonder if many see it as a zero-sum game – ie. if we fund Smithsonian 2.0, will that come at the cost of building renovations or extra staffers?

Dan, did you get an overall sense for just how reluctant Smithsonian curators were to “cede turf” on the crowd-sourcing front? I’m curious if it is deep widespread resistance on an individual level, or more related to institutional inertia.

@Eric: loved the comment on Smithsonian’s roots in crowd-sourcing.

Dan Cohen says:

@Cameron I got the sense it wasn’t a zero-sum game, and that they would go out and get additional funds for SI 2.0. Reluctance among curators varied greatly by unit; I’m hopeful other SI staffers will comment here about their feelings.

I would love to see the Smithsonian produce podcasts like those coming out of the Kansas Museum of History with its terrific “Cool Things in the Collection” podcast.

I like that the collaborations of scientists with amateurs are coming to the fore in this conversation. But what about the history and art museums and collaboration (beyond ARGs like “Ghosts of a Chance”)? My dissertation was on women scientists working at the SI in the first half of the 20th century, but I also ran across some papers in the SI archives from history curators. As public-facing as some of the curators seemed to want to be, there was still a sense of “Why the heck does the public think we’d want this object?” when people approached them with donations that the curators could tell were inauthentic (e.g. alleged First Ladies’ gowns). It’s not at all clear to me that the history museums understand what collaboration with the public might look like in a 2.0 world, whereas science has always been about collaboration, trading specimens, crowdsourcing, etc. I don’t mean to say they’re doing it wrong–just that if they are doing it, I don’t see it beyond the NMAH blog, and I do look for these things.

Nina’s comment about local audiences makes me wonder what’s going on at Anacostia Community Museum is doing regarding web 2.0.

A bit of rambling:

To an extent, this SI 2.0 process is designed to illuminate the existing internal 2.0 efforts for folks inside the Institution as well as to find external moral support for current efforts while seeking expert guidance for future efforts. There has been great support from the CIO in our current social networking endeavors as well as funding to research and deploy digital asset management systems that meet the needs of our scientists and researchers while having strong web-enabled components both for scholarly collaboration and dissemination/collaboration with the public.

The Institution is vast, funding sources varied and our public face multifaceted. Among our biggest problems at the moment is not having a place where people can find information on all the outreach efforts. We have a long way to go, but people are not aware of the variety of things that are happening now. We need to do a much better job of helping folks discover the resources for which they are looking, and of communicating our individual efforts to one another.

Our scientists are in the field around the world working with local experts and indigenous populations doing the most vital basic research on which NGOs and government entities can rely in forging long-term solutions as well as directly tackling issues like Sustainable Agriculture, Global Warming, Species Preservation, Deforestation, Indigenous Rights, and on and on, so the tradition of working hand-in-hand with experts and laypersons continues even more vigorously today than in the past. We are able to do so much, in fact, because there is so much free reign, and stopping to communicate the work beyond those providing the funds to keep it going for one more month or one more year is sometimes just too much for those who are down in the dirt. It is incumbent on those of us lucky enough to sit in air conditioned offices to both keep up with and promote that work, providing easy to use tools to the folks in the trenches to allow them to communicate while not getting distracted from the vital work they are doing out in the real world on a daily basis. The museum has traditionally provided a platform for some of these efforts to bubble up to the public consciousness through exhibits and lectures, while the vast bulk of our impact on global knowledge and problem solving continues in the background. It is the job of those of us involved in technology and web development to bring the stories of the work of our colleagues to the public in a way that doesn’t impede the actual work. (You notice it is hard to phrase any of this broadly enough to cover a researcher from the Migratory Bird Center doing work with Shade Grown Coffee Producers and Forest Fragmentation research in the field and an Art Historian cataloging the oral history records of Carmen Lomas Garza. There aren’t a lot of terms that encompass the breadth of the work undertaken under the aegis of the Institution.)

What I was hoping would come out of this discussion was suggestions of tools and techniques that can be broadly applied both to meet the needs of immensely diverse staff and the many learning modes of our vast audiences.

I’d like to stop reinventing the wheel for each new project and find tried and true methods of achieving our internal goals and fulfilling our audience’s desires. I don’t want to test and gather data and pilot; I’d like to employ the best of breed solutions that have already been proven effective by others. I think if we start there, then bend these techniques to our specific situation, we will move much farther down the road much more expediently.

Believe me, we have blogs, podcasts, interactive websites, accessible database galore. Many units are populating wikis, updating Facebook pages, tweeting, creating and uploading video content, etc. It is presenting these offerings to the public in a way that the breadth is laid at their feet that is one of our current challenges. That and rapidly creating new content, or enabling our researchers to create that content, in a way that enhances their efforts, rather than standing as an impediment to getting the “real” work done.

So, for out next meeting, I’d love to see best of breed solutions employed by others in the field and get a feel for how they would fit our Institution.

Some of my efforts built on everyone else’s efforts: (Fan, Follow Or Get Out of the Way!)

j trant says:

i’m a bit disheartened by the ‘turf’-related comments here. they embody all that isn’t 2.0 about museums – fossilized in the sense that there is only one narrative and only one group qualified [privileged] enough to tell it. one of the things the report on Museums of the Future got right was its emphasis on diversity. 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 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.

Beth Harris says:

Dan, I so enjoyed reading your and Nancy Proctor’s tweets during the conference. Thank you so much for that and for this summary. Like Nina — who asked above, “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 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). I wonder if your blog readers had any thoughts about this…?

Dan Cohen says:

@Beth: Agreed about the diversity issue. It was much discussed among the digerati as well. Not sure how we were chosen, but I suspect that the Smithsonian wished it had been a bit more thoughtful about the invites, and would have gained much from having you, Nina, and other women at the table.

Mia says:

Thanks for this useful summary! I have always been curious about how resistant curators really are to ‘participatory web’-style input to online collections – finding the time to respond to or produce online content seems to be more of an issue than fear of loss of authority for the curators I know.

Is there any chance some of the comments or feelings expressed at the sessions could be summarised if the curators who were present, or others at the SI, don’t respond?

Beth Harris says:

Thanks Dan, I appreciate that, and glad to hear that this was noted by more than a few of us!

I had never before given this any thought before tonight, but I think the majority (more than half) of those involved in web dev at the Smithsonian are female, and often the heads of their Division/Group/Whatever. Our CIO if female, as I believe are the majority of her direct reports. So, at least internally, women are proportionally represented, if not more so, and simply due to the merit of those individuals who have applied for positions. I have a feeling that as this moves forward, and without any conscious effort, the sex ratio of our “Digiluminatti” will even out or skew in the other direction. I also think that the names you forward in these forums will be noted for future events.

@Marc Bretzfelder: Thanks so much for pointing us to the Smithsonian’s page on FB. I’m not sure why I hadn’t looked for it before. The sidebar has so many rich resources!

I agree with j trant that some museums might be thinking too narrowly when they think about institution-created content to which visitors respond or w/which visitors interact. I’m definitely guilty of this kind of thinking myself… Can anyone point me to any really interesting visitor-initiated projects involving Smithsonian content? (By visitor I mean physical or virtual)

[…] Jeg anbefaler Dans oppsummering – i bloggposten Smithsonian 1.1 and 2.9 […]

@Nina: I wasn’t involved in the attendee selection, but many of us at the Smithsonian read/interface with/draw from colleagues in the museum world such as you mention on a regular basis. I agree it was interesting to hear a variety of “outsider” perspectives.

Speaking of that…Dan, we all appreciate your thoughts and enthusiasm!

Thanks Dan for such a great summary of the event. I tend to agree with Jennifer re: turf wars. The Web 2.0 environment has given us an opportunity to rethink our engagement with audiences, the experiences we wish to develop, the environment in which this occurs and the ways in which we evaluate the outcomes. Additionally, social media have the potential to encourage participation in a sector of learning which has historically been uni-directional; shifting from knowledge transmission to audience engagement and participation. This suggests that new strategies, tools and techniques need to be developed. I find it interesting that in the past few years, the Smithsonian has rarely been represented in the sector’s largest professional conference, Museums and the Web! I look forward to exploring more about this session through the vodcasts, videos and podcasts which have been uploaded!

Scott Guerin says:

I want to mention that the smartest Webby at the Smithsonian was a guy, Mike Edson, at the Smithsonian’s Gallery of American Art. He and Claire Larkin had the vision to take SI over the top in Web 2.0/3.0 if the funding had continued and if certain politics were not so difficult to overcome. A key aspect of their thinking was to develop datamining programs to leverage the disperate SI databases to create scalable digital content on demand.

Having been involved with the attempt to launch a comprehensive, context-aware digital initiative there(as SIguide co-founder) I also want to make sure the SI community remains aware of the hours of audio and video content we produced, and which due to the busuiness disaster WiVID was, SI got it all for free (no hard feelings at all by the way.) Use the stuff, it cost $700,000, and is curator certified.

Scott Guerin says:

Sorry, but to clarify my post above, SIguide was the product, I was a WiVID co-founder Also, Matt MacArthur had his head on his shoulders too, as well as many other terrific, forward looking but frustrated people I know there.

[…] to og tre, hvis vi kan si det slik. Historikeren og matematikeren Dan Cohen skrev nylig bloggposten Smithsonian 1.1 and 2.9 – som illustrerer […]

Dan, wonderful post. Nina, to echo Matt, we do talk to other Museum experts and they provide wonderful advice and support. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of those you mentioned as well as many others. I wasn’t involved in the attendee selection either, but I did talk to one invited “digerati” that was unable to attend, so I know others were contacted. The director of American Art suggested another meeting next year and several attendees told me they thought it should be within 6 months. I don’t know if the economy will permit everyone to gather in person that often, but I really hope the engagement will continue online and involve more participants.

Scott Guerin says:

Kudis to Vicki too on the SIguide project. You all going to use those web-ready media someday?

[…] Jag ser på mymarkup att Smithsonian Institution har haft ett tvådagarsseminiarium där de undersöker möjligheterna att bli mera “Webb 2.0″ (detta väldefinierade begrepp…). Bland de inbjudna talarna fanns flera kända namn som George Oates (kvinnan bakom Flickr: The Commons), Chris Anderson (som skrev “The Long Tail”) och Clay Shirky (allmän Webb 2.0-guru). Seminariet har dokumenterats och diskuterats löpande via Twitter, Flickr, Youtube och andra kanaler och dessa flöden går förstås att nå samlade på Smithsonians webbplats. Dan Cohen på Digital Humanities har också löpande bloggat och kommer med värdefulla reflektioner. […]

My experience from working in the heritage sector tells me that “lack of funding” is sometimes used as a convenient excuse to do little or nothing. However, my experience also tells me that the projects upper management care about always get funding so in many cases getting insitutional buy-in is key. This will then lead to prioritising funding toward 2.0-projects.

[…] one making the 0.2/2.0 contrast. Here’s Eric Johnson, in comments to Dan Cohen’s recent write-up of the Smithsonian 2.0 conference (I hope it’s ok that I excerpt the entire […]

[…] 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 […]

[…] like to be able to do with Smithsonian Institution objects, in the future (I quote from Dan’s post): Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really […]

[…] the Smithsonian Commons project. I think it's a great idea. As the Jefferson Library's Eric Johnson has pointed out, in some ways, Smithsonian 2.0 is really getting back to the organizational structures of […]

[…] Via A Repository for Bottled Monsters (“An unofficial blog for the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC.”): The Washington Post has a story up about the Smithsonian’s efforts to join the digital age, starting with “Smithsonian 2.0,” a gathering of Smithsonian curators, staff, and such digital luminaries as Clay Shirky (we wrote about an interview with him here), Bran Ferren (co-chairman and chief creative officer of Applied Minds Inc.), George Oates (one of the founders of Flickr), and Chris Anderson (editor in chief of Wired). [Update: Dan Cohen was also there, and wrote about his responses here.] […]

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