Earlier this week, I heard Dr Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, speak as part of the Long Nowâ€™s Seminars About Long Term Thinking (SALT) series. In his talk, he focused primarily on a part of the Smithsonian I confess I know a lot less about than its plethora of libraries, archives and museums: the Smithsonianâ€™s science centers and the scientific work throughout the institution. Did you know that apart from all of those buildings on the mall, the Smithsonian maintains numerous research centers with activities in 88 countries, or that every 6th Smithsonian employee is working in astronomy? Or that the Smithsonian tends the longest scientifically observed plot of earth (a slice of rain forest in Panama, which it has researched for the last 100 years)? I didn’t, and I walked away newly impressed with the breadth and scope of Smithsonian engagement in science, and in particular its contributions to our knowledge about global warming.
In the q&a, some of the question focused on what you might call more traditional â€śmuseumâ€ť concerns. A question about deaccessioning of materials triggered an interesting exchange between Clough and Steward Brand, the host of the lecture series. When Clough stated that the Smithsonian wonâ€™t duplicate collections at other museums, Brand followed up: â€śYou have some network knowledge of whatâ€™s in all the museums of the world?â€ť When Clough affirmed, Brand wanted to know: â€śCan we have access to that?â€ť
Of course, when Clough affirmed, the network he was talking about was the professional network among curators, as well as the published literature, which allowed the Smithsonian to know what other institutions collect. What Brand got intrigued by, however, was the idea that there might be a database system representing museum collections across the globe which the public might gain access to. Of course, such a database does not yet exist. Itâ€™s difficult to refrain from speculating how much inefficiency is built into museum practice because we lack such a resource.
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