Earlier this week, I heard Dr Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, speak as part of the Long Now’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 Smithsonian’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 “museum” 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 won’t duplicate collections at other museums, Brand followed up: “You have some network knowledge of what’s in all the museums of the world?” When Clough affirmed, Brand wanted to know: “Can we have access to that?”
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. It’s difficult to refrain from speculating how much inefficiency is built into museum practice because we lack such a resource.
I suspect that in their highly specialized areas, curators do indeed have a pretty good grasp on comparable collections at other institutions. I say “pretty good” because we know at least anecdotally that when it comes to archival resources, we’ve often seen scholars surprised that they’ve missed compelling primary materials in their research area after they’ve searched ArchiveGrid, which is the closest equivalent to the database Brand was fishing for in the archival world.
Even within the Smithsonian, let alone the museum world writ large, the lack of a comprehensive system for collections presents challenges. During a workshop with representatives from all Smithsonian collecting units in 2007, curators testified that they had difficulty fulfilling a mandate to create exhibitions from Smithsonian materials because they couldn’t verify what other Smithsonian museums held. In the absence of accessible database systems from other units, personal connections were the de facto way of securing information about objects. (The Smithsonian has made ambitious plans to remedy this situation, as mentioned in this report [pdf], as well as this more recent presentation).
The Smithsonian is not alone in striving to provide more comprehensive access to materials held under a single administrative umbrella – for starters, all of the participants in our library, archive and museum workshops fall into that category. Just to give one example, at Yale, campus museums are working together to establish a joint Digital Asset Management System, and they are continuing to work on single-point access to LAM collections through a network of OAI data providers for collecting units across campus. (Some of the campus museums are using our free tools to facilitate this data exchange.)
Towards the end of the evening, Clough related an anecdote from an individual who had been given a behind-the-scenes tour of storage areas of the Smithsonian. After the tour, this person said:
I grew up in Washington. I’ve been to the Smithsonian many times. This is the first time I’ve ever really understood the Smithsonian.
(I can fully relate to the marvel and wonder this person must have felt, since I’ve been lucky enough to have been behind the scenes at SI’s National Museum of Natural History.) This observation prompted Clough to challenge himself and his institution with the question: “How can we use digital processes to allow people to connect to that experience?”