Smithsonian Perspectives

The electronic transformation that is under way at the Smithsonian will fulfill a central promise of democracy

In this, the last of three columns inspired by the challenges faced by our newly opened National Museum of the American Indian and by the entire Institution in general, I come to one that will uniquely mark my tenure as Secretary: the electronic transformation of the Smithsonian.

At the heart of the information revolution is something far more than an advance in technology; it is the fulfilling of one central promise of democracy: to make knowledge available to as many citizens as possible, and to allow that access to be shaped by their needs.

The sense of what the new technology might mean is particularly strong among Native American communities, who see it as a vital tool of cultural preservation. At its opening events, the National Museum of the American Indian presented the computer program created by Wisconsin's Winnebago community "as a way of giving the gift of the Winnebago language to a generation that probably won't get it at home," as a reporter put it. Such examples have inspired the museum to add to the three planned physical facilities a fourth "museum," which will be concerned with outreach programs and the electronic sharing of resources and ideas with tribal communities throughout the nation and the hemisphere.

Those who visit the NMAI's center in Manhattan will soon have available to them a database of more than 250,000 records that cover approximately one million objects and include about 85,000 photographs. A visitor will be able to search the collections database by region, tribe, state and type of object by simply touching a monitor screen. The data system, called LYNX, is designed to collect information from museum visitors as well as give it, connecting comments to the computer record of the object so they can be entered into NMAI's database.

Throughout the Smithsonian, many of our other museums, research centers and offices have found their own entrances to the information highway. Those Americans who have access to Smithsonian Online, for example, can make an electronic trip to the National Museum of American Art to retrieve digitalized images from the collection, review exhibition schedules and ask questions of the staff. More than 130,000 electronic visitors have done so. Recently, NMAA Online has begun once-a-week live discussions with guest hosts. One computer magazine called it "a first in cyberspace."

Apart from availability on commercial services, the Smithsonian is committed to making its resources widely available on the sprawling Internet, which is free to those set up to use it. One Internet site, operated by our Office of Printing and Photographic Services, enables users, and in particular students, to download hundreds of photographs. Soon the Smithsonian will go on-line with a full, continually updated information service devoted to the Institution as a whole, with "home-pages" for each of our museums and research centers. This can become a "Smithsonian Without Walls," bringing our resources home to Americans and offering a perennial field trip for students. I'm told that one day emerging technologies will allow on-line visitors to look at 3-D images and, in essence, "hold" an item in their hands, turning it through all its dimensions.

A tough challenge is to find new ways to do things electronically that we normally do on-site. Exhibitions prepared for on-line access should not be just repackaged; they should be re-created. One prototype we are developing in collaboration with scientists at NASA is an on-line interactive version of "Ocean Planet," an exhibit scheduled to open in April at the National Museum of Natural History. It will be available free of charge over the Internet via the World Wide Web. The on-line version will be organized around an interactive floor plan of the exhibit and will incorporate all of its elements. Its "resource room" will provide an interactive bulletin board and instantaneous connections (hotlinks) to other sources of oceanographic information available on the Internet. It will also feature a variety of special programs including discussion sessions, videotaped lectures and demonstrations.

Museums have always represented collaborative efforts. No one individual creates an exhibition or builds a museum's collections. Add now the dimensions of electronic outreach, which requires partnerships at all levels. The Smithsonian has entered into partnerships with the private sector to produce such award-winning multimedia projects as the state-of-the-art CD-I set The Downhome Blues and The Uptown Blues (Philips), and on laser disk, Amazonia and The Virtual BioPark, a collaboration between the National Zoo and Computer Curriculum Corporation. We are also joining with the White House and other parts of the federal government to address joint goals in a massive effort to digitize national holdings for the greater benefit of all of our citizens.

It's a start, and I think a good start. As we plan for the celebration of our 150th anniversary in 1996, we will continue to enlarge our technological capacity and know-how to extend the reach of our historic mission. It is James Smithson's goal of "the increase and diffusion of knowledge" reborn for a new century.

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