How the Smithsonian is Coming to You

Between smartphone apps and local exhibitions, the Institution is looking for great new ways to connect to our biggest fans

“laser cowboy”
A “laser cowboy” makes a 3-D scan of Lincoln’s life mask at the Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Digitization Program Office – 3D Lab

Not long ago, I was browsing through the letters of Jackson Pollock in the collection of our Archives of American Art, and I stumbled across one to his brothers Charles and Frank, written when Jackson was 15. It begins with pleasantries before taking a startling turn: “The head of the Physical Ed. Dept. and I came to blows the other day.” Pollock pleaded his case to the principal, but “he was too thick to see my side” and Pollock wound up “ousted from school.”

I wasn’t learning about this formative incident in the life of the master Abstract Impressionist while sitting in the physical Archives, but as I paged through the letters at home on my iPad. And this is how millions of people will experience the Smithsonian in coming years. But even as we continue to digitize many of our 137 million objects—some 60 percent of the works in our art museums are now on our websites—we’re moving beyond providing access to creating opportunities for two-way interactions between museums and our visitors.

With the next version of our main Smithsonian mobile app, visitors to the National Mall can point their phones at our buildings and, thanks to GPS and virtual-reality technology, get a glimpse of what’s going on inside. There are apps that work as high-tech tour guides, but we also have others like “Stories from Main Street,” which encourages residents of rural America to upload their own tales to an oral history archive. Our app “Leafsnap” began as a way to help people identify trees and bushes in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, but scientists are now using the crowdsourced data uploaded by users to track the shifting dispersal of certain species, as the climate changes.

Through iTunes U, Civil War buffs get free access to videos and lectures created by curators at the National Portrait Gallery. And as interest in 3-D fabrication techniques rises (see “The Printed World”), we are creating templates that allow anyone with a 3-D printer to “print” hyper-accurate models of such iconic objects as the Revolutionary War gunboat Philadelphia, America’s oldest extant fighting vessel.

The next big step, however, will be to build a Smithsonian-wide digital platform that includes tools that users of sites like Facebook and Pinterest have come to expect, tools that build communities, promote sharing of favorite objects and make algorithm-generated recommendations of other objects and themes to check out. To ensure we’re on the right track, we’ve asked experts from Google, the Museum of Modern Art’s digital division and O’Reilly Media to serve on an advisory committee.

The possibilities for presenting our riches and interacting with visitors are expanding in ways we couldn’t have anticipated even a few years ago.

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