Museums form an integral part in our society, our education and in the communication and advancement of our culture and community. A recent study by the Institute of Museum and Library Services shows that there are more museums in the United States than McDonalds restaurants and Starbucks stores combined1.
Digital innovation and increasing consumption of knowledge via the internet pose a threat to traditional institutions of learning like museums, libraries and schools. At the same time, however, technology can act as a great equalizer by providing opportunity for increased access to art and culture. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, has taken a stance to support the latter view and has implemented a Digitization Program to embrace technology as a vehicle to bring culture to a wider public audience and to advance their own research.
The Smithsonian’s digital effort can be categorised broadly into three categories using the McKinsey digitization index2 framework: investment in digital assets (hardware, software, data, IT services), digital usage to engage with customers and suppliers in a digital way and lastly, a digitally enabled workforce that uses technology to drive performance and productivity.
Firstly, to build its digital asset base, the Smithsonian invested in laser scanning technology to start a large scale, mass digitization of its collection to make it accessible online to the public. These artefacts and documents include 138 million objects and specimens, 157 thousand cubic feet of archive materials, and 2 million library volumes, all of which are currently housed in 41 different facilities3. Laser scanned images allow global users to discover the artefacts in 2D or 3D online, process the data and even print their own 3D models. The museum itself is using 3D printing technology to enhance its collection, for example by printing an interactive and accessible 3D version of the Apollo11 command module Columbia, which due to preservation reasons is typically exhibited behind glass.
With less than 1% of museum collections on display at any time, digitization brings items to life that would otherwise never be viewed by the public. Capturing artefacts like sculptures or ancient jewelry in 3D also has advantages from a preservation point of view for repair or restoration. Similarly, researchers are able to bring back 3D data on species they discover on expeditions without having to remove them from their natural habitat.
The Smithsonian also invested heavily in digital interaction with its visitors to increase engagement and experiential learning, especially among younger visitors. The museum developed a Virtual Reality app called “Skin & Bones4”, through which viewers can experience the 1881 established Bone Hall, a comparative anatomy exhibit, in a completely different and new way. Users of the app can see skeletons come to life and interact with them through their iPhones or iPads.
Lastly, the Smithsonian is working hard to empower their workforce with technology to increase productivity and enhance creativity. The researchers who work for the museum have started crowd-sourcing parts of their research by opening up questions for public interpretation and debate. The museum established a digital volunteering website, where members of the public can help curate exhibitions by signing up to perform tasks, such as transcription of handwritten articles.
The Smithsonian is a thought leader among museums and national libraries in adapting a traditional business to trends and behaviors of the Digital Age. To further the impact, the Smithsonian Institute could consider a “competitor” analysis. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, has a very progressive approach to copyright. It has defined all its works as Creative Commons “CC0” status5 and is thereby encouraging designers and artists to adapt and commercialize the existing works further. Arguments can be presented both in favor and against this approach, but it highlights a clear shift in the art world towards a sharing economy approach driven by digitization.
Museums, libraries and schools are increasingly aware of the need to adapt business and operating models to reflect consumers’ consumption of media and art through technological interfaces. There is a huge risk for institutions to perform large scale investments into flashy installations, which in the long run are unsustainable and neither contribute to the preservation of objects nor to the education of the general public. Rigor has to be exercised when thinking about how to approach a digitization program. Part of the solution for museums therefore could be to partner with young institutions in the art world and startups like “Cuseum” for example, which is a low cost museum engagement platform that can be tailored to different museums. Such partnerships could further help established organizations stay close to digital trends.
1 Institute Of Museum and Library Services: https://www.imls.gov/
2 McKinsey Global Institute Research: “Digital America – a tale of the haves and have mores” by James Manyika, Sree Ramaswamy, et al.
3The Smithsonian Institution Digitization Program Office: https://dpo.si.edu/about-digitization-program-office
4 Skin and Bones: http://naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/bone-hall/
5 Creative Commons CC0: “The person who associated a work with this deed has dedicated the work to the public domain by waiving all of his or her rights to the work worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.” https://creativecommons.org/choose/zero/