Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History

 

(III. Recommendations)

E. Recommendations to Increase the Museum's Reach—Through Digitization and Use of the Web

The Commission was charged to meet only a limited number of times. In its limited time, the Commission was able to identify more issues than it was able to address responsibly. The largest of the under-addressed issues involves the implications of new technology -- especially digital electronic communication -- for NMAH's role and reach.

At one level, the issue is straightforward. Millions of people visit the Museum in Washington. Many, many millions more people might benefit from exposure to the Museum's collections and programs -- but are unable to visit Washington. The rapid advances in digitization and electronic communication have made it technologically possible to use the web (and other media) to reach distant audiences at low cost (or no cost) to the "virtual visitors." Collections can be digitally photographed, stored, and retrieved. So, too, can exhibits. And, somewhat more ambitiously, interesting educational programs can be developed that draw upon NMAH collections and exhibits.

Thus, these questions naturally arise:

  • Should NMAH modify its traditional conception of what it means to "visit" the Museum?
  • Should NMAH radically expand its operative concept of its addressable audience?
  • Should NMAH increase its relative emphasis on investment in the use of digital technology and programming to address the vast audience that is available electronically?

The Commission would answer all three of these questions, "Yes." The Museum's leadership would, also. It would note that exhibits and collections are now being digitally stored, and that initiatives have been taken in web-based communication. These are important first steps. But the reality is that the allocation of NMAH resources to digital technology and programming is insignificant relative to other NMAH activities (a fraction of one percent). And, perhaps more importantly, it is low relative to the opportunities that digital technology would seem to present. That much is clear to the Commission.

But exactly what should be done is not. The issues go beyond questions of resource allocation. They include questions that are important and difficult, such as the following:

  • What is the relative importance of an active educational role in relation to the NMAH mission? (Note: This issue would be important in the absence of digital electronic technology. But the arrival of that technology -- and its enormous potential to increase the reach of NMAH -- give the mission question special relevance and urgency.)
  • What is the role of the Smithsonian relative to other institutions involved with educational programming (both electronic and non-electronic)? What are the Museum's comparative advantages? Under what terms should collaborative arrangements be struck with public educational institutions and authorities? Private not-for-profit institutions? Private for-profit institutions?
  • And what is the best way to staff and organize for a much more substantial NMAH presence in the electronic domain? With what internal bureaucratic implications? And what implications for fundraising and budgeting?

The Commission would have required more time (and a broader base of expertise) to address such questions with the depth of attention they deserve, and to develop specific recommendations in which it could have confidence. Given its limited tenure, however, the Commission offers only this one general recommendation:

RECOMMENDATION (15) re: DIGITIZATION AND REACH

AFTER SOLICITING ADVICE FROM APPROPRIATE EXTERNAL EXPERTS, NMAH SHOULD RADICALLY INCREASE INVESTMENT TO BRING ITS COLLECTIONS AND PROGRAMMING TO THE VAST AUDIENCE IT MIGHT REACH THROUGH DIGITAL ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION.

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