Smithsonian Secretary plans to make massive collection available to all

The world's largest museum and research complex undertakes a digitization project for technology that doesn't yet exist. Get ready for dead butterflies on pins flying across your computer screen.

Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He previously spent 14 years as president of Georgia Tech, so he knows a thing or two about young people and technology. In fact, he’s made it his business to put online the entire collection of Smithsonian artifacts, records, documents and relics from 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo.

I talked to Clough last week, just as the cherry blossoms around the National Mall were at their peak.

The Smithsonian is 164 years old and the world’s largest museum and research complex. And you’re taking on the task of digitizing the collection. How big of a job is that?

It’s a very big job, one that requires a lot of thought. You can imagine digitizing is a relatively dull thing to do—taking a picture and putting it on the computer, hopefully with a robust search engine. But we have mostly three-dimensional objects. My question is, let’s assume 10 years from now we might have digitized a significant part of our collection, but would we have digitized them it a technology that’s current today but obsolete then? Will we have the ability to use 3D? The answer to that is yes, as we have with the new Human Origins exhibit. [Click here to view some 3D fossils and artifacts.] But let’s say you were interested in Amelia Earhart’s plane. You don’t just want to see a picture of it. You want an image you can turn around, see the engine, the inside of the cockpit, the instruments. And if we got really good at it, it would fly off in the distance on your screen.

So you’re planning for this online collection with technology that doesn’t yet exist?

Yes, but we’re talking to people who think in those terms. You worry about obsolescence. Suppose the Smithsonian had decided 10 years ago that the beta tape was the wave of the future. We’d be pretty well stuck now.

How many items are in the collection?

People tell me it’s 137 million. We have lots of bugs and 650,000 deceased birds, including one that Darwin collected. Some sadly don’t exist today, like the passenger pigeon. Another aspect of digitization is DNA. We can document the DNA of creatures that don’t exist.

One of your goals is to broaden access, so you’ll reach people who may never get to see the museums.

I grew up in a rural community with parents who didn’t have an lot of extra money for vacations. I didn’t know Smithsonian existed until I went to college. But my parents helped pay for the Smithsonian because they pay taxes. Yet they got no return for their investment, and in the American way, that’s not fair. So let’s try to reach those people who aren’t making it to the museum. Those who are visiting tend to be college-educated, upper income, white and urban. Those less likely are rural, minority, lower income. So now we have a chance to reach them. And through social media, they can reach us.

What does it mean for a collection to be online?

It changes the world. It goes from a set of collections that belong to a museum or a research center to a set of collections that belongs to nobody. And it makes it much easier to access all the pieces. If you were a really dedicated museum-goer and went to all 19 our museums, you’d only see at best 1 percent of the collection. The rest is in storage in Maryland. For example, Teddy Roosevelt. He shot animals and collected birds, we have information on his presidency and his military history. You find him in a lot of places, but if you’re a visitor you don’t even know all those places exist. If you’re on the web, you see him in a different light than you would in collections.

Tell me about the coffee table in the waiting room outside your office.

It’s a Microsoft Surface—like a big iPhone. Technically speaking it’s a projection surface that’s tactile. If there’s an image of a pool and you put your fingers on it, it splashes. You can also pull up archival photos and records. It’s more than entertainment. It’s a way to process information. Five years from now it might be 10 by 10 feet. It might be a wall you can manipulate with your hand. We’re thinking about that for the walls of the Arts and Industries Building.

All these digital plans take a lot of money, yet it’s still—unbelievably--free to visit the museums. Where is your money coming from?

To its credit, the federal government gives us quite a bit of money. The Obama administration is anxious to create a government that is accessible to people. If they give us money to digitize, we’re going to give them information they would not normally get. We also are working hard to become more entrepreneurial. If we become very good at this digitization, people will pay us for it. We might have a division for digital imagery. And because of our size, we can have the expertise to digitize that a small museum can’t possibly have. In England, they’ve already started a consortium of eight museums working together to share all their digital collections. I think small museums could turn to us for similar guidance. And I want to be here for them.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com