Wiring the Castle
February 27, 2009 9:09 PM   Subscribe

Circuits are flipping on in the nation's attic. A couple of weeks ago, 31 "digerati" -- like Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, and George Oates -- dropped in to the Smithsonian Institution for the invitation-only conference "Smithsonian 2.0: A Gathering to Re-imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age". Dan Cohen of the Center for History and New Media provides a great summary (and continues to pose provocative questions) on his own blog. Those whose invitations were somehow lost in the mail can play fly-on-the-wall by watching the keynotes, paging through the Flickr pool of envymaking glimpses of their behind-the-scenes lab and collections tours, reading the blog (where Bruce Wyman of the Denver Art Museum lays out a succinct road map for museums using social media), and poking around in the SI's website gallery. Want to cheer on the USA's favorite 163-year-old "Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge" without taking the trip to DC? Thanks to their recent efforts, you can now follow the SI on Twitter, listen to its podcasts, watch its YouTube channel, visit the Latino Virtual Museum in Second Life, or use the FaceBook gifts page to send your best friends their very own pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers, Hope diamond, Negro Leagues baseball, or coelocanth.
posted by Miko (13 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post! Thanks.
posted by theefixedstars at 9:40 PM on February 27, 2009


Those whose invitations were somehow lost in the mail...

...are still feeling the burn, thank you very much.

(Great post. Grumble grumble.)
posted by LarryC at 11:07 PM on February 27, 2009


I went to the Smithsonian as a child and loved it. My mom bought dozens of Smithsonian badges and used them to patch holes in my jeans. Unfortunately, little kids in Toronto don't know about the Smithsonian. They do, however, know that there are institutes for psychiatric patients. Not good times.

To this day I am still a bit haunted by the space monkey encased in steel like a ancestral version of Han Solo. I am also resentful that my rubber band powered balsa wood Spirit of St. Louis splintered into kindling on its maiden flight across the school yard.

Everyone should have these deformative experiences. Don't skip actually going to DC.
posted by srboisvert at 7:00 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The Louvre has Venus. What do you have instead? If you can answer that question confidently and concisely without a lot of stimulating-the-following-target-audiences mission statement hooey -- and your answer isn't on SecondLife, then you may be one the few museums that doesn't suck.

You're a museum, right? You're not an outreach summercamp. You're not an Imax theatre lobby. You're not a social networking iPhone app. Be a museum. And try harder not to suck at it. "



This advice to museums applies equally well to troubled magazines, newspapers, companies, and the like. via kottke
posted by lazaruslong at 9:25 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Louvre has Venus. What do you have instead? If you can answer that question confidently and concisely without a lot of stimulating-the-following-target-audiences mission statement hooey -- and your answer isn't on SecondLife, then you may be one the few museums that doesn't suck.

Wow, I kind of totally disagree with that. Some of my favorite museums have a so-so collection, but wonderful programming that makes the most of the collection. The stuff is important, but without context and storytelling and understanding and connection, you might as well be at the mall. Stuff is stuff.
posted by Miko at 10:16 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


It will never be the same as physically being there, but I don't understand why, almost a decade into the 21st century, I can't visit the Smithsonian virtually via the internet. I want to be able to explore the museums, view the exhibits up close and from lots of angles, read all the information placards, and so on. One 1000x700 picture, at best, of an artifact doesn't cut it.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:17 AM on February 28, 2009


The kottke link seems to be hosed?
posted by Miko at 10:17 AM on February 28, 2009


I don't understand why, almost a decade into the 21st century, I can't visit the Smithsonian virtually via the internet.

One reason is that museums intentionally don't want to try to duplicate the visitation experience on the internet, any more than a store wants to show you its products organized onto virtual shelves with virtual pricetags and a virtual pushable shopping cart. For one thing, it's much less effective - what works in the meatspace platform doesn't translate well directly to a completely different medium. For another, it tends to make people wonder if there's anything to be gained by being in the environment. The experience of physical space and atmosphere is part of the museum experience. A third thing is that the opportunities created by digitization, collections databases, and web technology actually make possible some truly innovative ways of experiencing a collection that could never be done in real life (such as allowing access to and viewing/understanding of the 90+% of objects that are not on exhibit at any one time, or creating your own virtual exhibit maybe for use in presentations or research projects), and because those extend the museum's core missions in new and meaningful ways, more time, funding, and thought is often devoted to them.

I do think that museums are shamefully behind the curve - I mean, it is an embarrassment - but at the same time, I'm thrilled to see the changes starting to take place. Perhaps the reluctance to change (and the dearth of resources with which to do it) created a useful delay. If museums now can benefit from the decade or more of experience that other organizations have with digital and web technologies, perhaps they can actually leapfrog the current state of technology - absorb and use it quickly, and then start pushing for the far horizon by finding really wonderful ways to unlock collections and the ideas and human experiences they represent.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on February 28, 2009


The Los Alamos Historical Museum is one of my favorite museums ever. The displays are not shiny and fancy - it's stuff in glass cases, mostly - but it's all organized in a narrative arc, starting with a description of the geology and geography of the area, then onto local Native history, then the boys' school that became the site of the Manhattan Project, and then the Project itself. There's a ton of material about the living conditions that the families of the scientists endured during the war, a fair amount about the science and scientists - it's just marvelous. We went in expecting to be in and out in twenty minutes, and two hours or more later we emerged, blinking, astonished.

Go, if you're ever in the area. Seriously, it's an amazing museum that does a fantastic job of making visitors really understand what life was like there.
posted by rtha at 10:38 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


LastOfHisKind, the answer is money and staff, which is what every museum does not have enough of, including the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian has 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo. That represents hundreds of exhibits, billions of artifacts, and hundreds of live animals. Do you realize what it would take in terms of resources to photograph every artifact and every exhibit (and note also that exhibits change regularly.) Note that the Smithsonian is the national museum for the United States, but the US does not fully support it. The Smithsonian must raise its own money as well, and try doing that in this economic climate.

Have you read the news lately. US museums are closing and laying off people right and left, and those that are hanging on to their jobs are often shamefully underpaid. If you read museum-l, which is a museum-related mailing list, you will find that a regular topic that comes up, only half jokingly, is about early career museum staff surviving on ramen noodles for budget reasons.
posted by gudrun at 10:44 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why, almost a decade into the 21st century, I can't visit the Smithsonian virtually via the internet

- Do you realize what it would take in terms of resources to photograph every artifact and every exhibit

Also, they'd have to generate the metadata to make their digitized collections searchable by outsiders. I expect most of the physical objects already have some sort of metadata, but I'd be willing to bet that much of it is incomplete, or is missing, or is 'curator speak'; and it almost certainly isn't standardized, which would make searching across various Smithsonian collections from a single portal very difficult indeed.
posted by carter at 5:13 PM on February 28, 2009


I like that they have chosen to display the talks in a prehistoric video format.
posted by srboisvert at 1:59 AM on March 1, 2009


A few days late, but this link to a blog has an animation on the Web Tech Guy and (vs.) Angry museum Staff Person probably belongs in this thread, especially as it was done by Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian.
posted by gudrun at 11:00 AM on March 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


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