Information for a Visual Age

How the internet changes the Smithsonian (and your business too)

In Technology on June 2, 2009 at 11:28 am

By Joel Garreau of the Washington Post wrote an excellent piece in January entitled “Smithsonian Click-n-Drags Itself Forward” (reposted at New America Foundation).

Imagine you’re the Smithsonian Institution. You are “America’s attic,” comprising museums numbering in the teens,with literally millions of artifacts in each inventory. Now you want to put your entire collection online, so that everyone can can see it. How do you do it, while also adding descriptive information that makes each artifact relevant to non-experts?

Oh yeah, did I mention the Smithsonian has a lot of stuff? If you’re only counting photos, it has a whopping 13 million. As a quick calculation, if it takes just 5 minutes to tag and write explanatory text for each image (which is very optimistic –some will surely take much longer to research, verify, revise, etc.), the entire collection would 250 people working full time for over two years to complete.  No wonder the Smithsonian’s initial foray on Flickr only featured 1,300 photos.

To address some of the issues related to digitization and online delivery, the Smithsonian recently convened a conference to figure out how to disseminate material on the Internet. Perhaps the largest problem will be institutional:

[Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson’s] “long tail” hypothesis has revolutionized how Web entrepreneurs think about their businesses. The basic idea, he explained at the event, was that in the Industrial Age, sales of anything were limited by shelf space. The result was the elevation of a priesthood of curators, editors and gatekeepers whose job it was to try to winnow through everything and offer up what they thought might be the best of the best — or at least the most likely to sell to the most people.

… Unlimited abundance via the Web is not the only reason for the end of the curatorial function of the 20th century, Anderson said. It’s also that the gatekeepers “got it wrong every time.” Every month, Anderson said, he picks which story will be on the cover of Wired, and every single month some other story ends up being the most read.

The key idea here is that of “unlimited abundance”: on the internet, there are no space constraints.

Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian’s got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, “If you know something about this, tell us.” Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. “I’ll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job” in authenticating it and explaining it. “It would be the best free labor that you can imagine.”

It didn’t go down easily among the thought leaders, who have staked their lives’ work on authoritativeness, on avoiding strikethroughs. What about the quality and strength of the knowledge we offer? asked one Smithsonian attendee.

You don’t get it, Anderson suggested. “There aren’t enough of you. Your skills cannot be invested in enough areas to give that quality.”

Just because the internet offers unlimited abundance does not destroy the role of the “curator” or guide, it just changes it. After all, unlimited abundance itself can be disorienting. If all of the Smithsonian’s 13 million photographs were available to me, the potential exists for information overload. At worst, a user may be turned off before beginning an exploration of the photographs, if only because she or he is unsure where to begin.

There is a second and more subtle danger here, too: unlimited abundance can reinforce existing stereotypes, prejudices and cliques. On the internet, there is unlimited ability to find more of what one already thinks. Online news media, for example, may already suffer from this phenomenon: people can choose to see only the news they want to see and be shielded from that which they don’t wish to see. More ominously, a racist group can find numerous racist websites to confirm their views. An extremist group can use the internet to find plenty of ways of demeaning others with intolerance and narrow-mindedness. Don’t get me wrong — this narrow-mindedness can also happen away from the internet. It’s just that internet provides additional tools that may reinforce this behavior.

That’s why I do not think curators and guides will go away. I go to museums to see things I already know, but I also go to be challenged and stretched by new experiences. And I can’t predict those beforehand. … But I do think it is an open question whether these curators will be professional, volunteer or some mix of both.

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