Uh-Oh. Smithsonian 2.0

Uh-Oh-Smithsonian 2.0

Put the Smithsonian on the Web and everyone can help curate the collections. What could be wrong with that?


The Institution held a “gathering” recently, Smithsonian 2.0. It was an updated cabaret version of a bigger production staged eight years ago at the museum’s 150th birthday party. There seem to have been no Smithsonian 2.0 speakers who would not personally benefit if the Smithsonian bestowed its blessing on “Web 2.0” measures.

Sadly, most models proposed at the meeting were antithetical to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge,”  the Smithsonian’s mission. Unless, that is, the Smithsonian now interprets “diffuse”  in its adjectival sense, “being at once verbose and ill-organized” (Merriam-Webster).

The definition of “Web 2.0” is itself a case study in “diffuse,” but the elevator pitch hinges on networking users to generate and refine content, a lovely concept. The concept presupposes a community of goodwill and common purpose, which is why sustained large-scale projects of this sort have been such failures in the real digital universe, populated as it is by the passionately opinionated yet ill informed, the malevolent, and the mentally disturbed. 

Many consider the Smithsonian to be as authoritative as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Smithsonian 2.0 participants would give the Smithsonian a Wikipedia make-over.

Brick-and-mortar museums, libraries, and archives have more than enough challenges with “Web 1.0,” digitizing collection highlights and making them available on the Web. Though popular with politicians and the public — and professionals who use the online data to make a living — such high-cost projects drain scarce resources from collections management and research. Even with its odd mix of public, corporate, foundation, and endowed funding sources, the Smithsonian budget is inadequate for existing programs.

Web 2.0 “crowdsourcing” of museum collection analysis would be even more resource-intensive. Under this scheme, images of objects would be put up on the Web for anyone to annotate. Instead of curating millions of artifacts,  Smithsonian specialists would curate billions of uninformed or misleading opinions about millions of artifacts. A few kernels of wisdom might be harvested from the tons of chaff, but expenses would be astronomical and opportunity costs  incalculable.

Several cultural institutions have put photos  up on the flickr Commons site for laymen to annotate. We know of no independent reviews of the quality of the user-generated data or cost/benefit analyses of institutional participation to date. SI should evaluate such studies before rushing into similar projects.

It’s not like museum curators in each field don’t already communicate with scholars, private experts, and informed lay enthusiasts, and perhaps improved invitation-only Web 2.0 workgroups could help these existing relationships. But even Wikipedia is abandoning its populist ideals and moving to restrict open public editing. The Smithsonian might restrict collection comments to trusted individuals like Britannica is doing, but that might be as politically difficult as charging for museum admission.

The Smithson bequest specifies “increase” of knowledge (research) before “diffusion” (outreach), and research logically precedes outreach. “Edutainment” at the expense of research and maintenance is a recipe for irrelevance if not self-extinction. If the quality and authority of Smithsonian research is compromised, the value of any knowledge “diffused,” like the value of  the Smithsonian name to co-marketers and corporate donors, will be severely discounted.

Smithsonian 2.0 seem to have been a pep rally, but the topic requires reasoned debate and development. It also requires input from researchers, curators, and those who supervise them, but there was none, if the event blog is any indication.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough is a civil engineer and a specialist in subsoils. What irony that Smithsonian 2.0 was built on such shaky ground.


Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here.Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

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2 Responses to “Uh-Oh. Smithsonian 2.0”

  1. Martin Says:

    The Britannica/Wikipedia analogy is quite apt; but take a look at the studies comparing the accuracy of the two. Also, which would you bet will be here in ten years? I’m not sure EB will make it over the hump; our memory institutions (libraries, archives, museums) need to confront a challenging future in proactive ways. Don’t through out all the good from the past, but don’t be afraid of the future (or, like EB rest on the laurels of the 11th edition)

  2. Mike Licht Says:

    Martin Says: The Britannica/Wikipedia analogy is quite apt; but take a look at the studies comparing the accuracy of the two.

    You mean the one by the BBC that rates Wikipedia as 24 percent inaccurate? It’s linked in the post above.

    Used Wikipedia lately? There is a warning or disclaimer on entries about any subject of consequence. That is why Wikimedia is moving to vetted groups of editors, a model EB has already instituted, as noted above.

    Far from resting on laurels, EB has constantly updated the online edition. Trusted-source workgroups will help update EB more frequently. It is Wikipedia that has stubbornly clung to a failed 20th century model, due to ideology and inertia.

    Please reread the post and click on the hyperlinks this time.

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