American history 2.0

Recently I took part in a “Smithsonian 2.0” conference about the future of the Smithsonian’s digital presence. In attendance were many of my colleagues from other museums and offices around the Institution and a group of invited guests representing some of the foremost thinkers on digital technology in the commercial, educational, and non-profit arenas. Over two days we had opportunities to share prior accomplishments and works-in-progress, dream up new possibilities, and address challenges and obstacles. (You can learn more and see video on the conference site, or follow the conversation on Twitter.)

After spending a morning viewing and evaluating some of the Smithsonian’s current digital projects (including two of our museum’s recent efforts, the new Star-Spangled Banner online exhibition and our History Explorer site for teachers), the outside participants were sent on behind-the-scenes tours of Smithsonian collections. In hindsight, this turned out to be a brilliant move by the conference organizers, and set the tone for the rest of the meeting.

HandballHandball used by Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Bob Kupbens.

I tagged along as one enthusiastic group toured the political history and jazz history collections at our own American History museum. Their sense of excitement at seeing Abraham Lincoln’s handball which he used for recreation, or a manuscript written in the hand of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, was infectious. They delighted in asking questions of our capable curatorial staff and getting a sense of how the museum comes to acquire certain artifacts and how we know what we know about them. Others who went to the National Museum of Natural History told of their marvel as one of their scientists used a chunk of meteorite to, in their words, “tell the story of the universe in five minutes.”

These experiences provided several lessons and reminders. First is the fact that authentic artifacts have a power that will never fully be replaced by their digital facsimiles. But beyond that, the group was collectively energized to figure out how the Smithsonian can, in the words of one participant, “bottle up the experience” of exploring the storage cabinets in the presence of both knowledgeable guides and fellow enthusiasts. Of course, relatively few will ever have the privilege of doing so in person, but technology can approximate the experience for millions of users. This will involve a continued commitment to providing digital information, tools, and experiences in both adequate quantity and quality, while maximizing limited resources. Indeed, many argue that we must do this to remain relevant in the 21st century.

This blog is just one of our efforts to reach out in new ways. You can also now access the museum via Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube. What else do you think we should be doing to extend the museum experience to virtual visitors?

Matthew MacArthur is Director of New Media at the National Museum of American History.