Smithsonian Confronts the Digital Age

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009

The Smithsonian has decided this whole online contraption may not be a fad after all.

Over the weekend it invited 31 luminaries of the digital age to talk with what the institution hopes are its most energetic thought leaders. The subject: dragging the world's greatest museum complex into the current century.

No small task.

Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, the technorati monthly, tells of one Smithsonista who proudly observed that her operation's curators had already carefully picked 1,300 photos and uploaded them to the social-sharing Web site Flickr.

The problem is that the Smithsonian has 13 million photos.

Well, it's a start. Only 99.99 percent to go.

At this gathering -- "Smithsonian 2.0," it was called -- there was much talk among the institution's handpicked staffers about the difficulties of moving this battleship, ocean liner, glacier . . . pick your metaphor. The invited techies, meanwhile, stressed how deathly soon might come the day the Smithsonian wakes to discover itself General Motors.

The forward-looking Smithsonistas have a formidable ally. That would be G. Wayne Clough, who became the Smithsonian's new secretary in July. His previous gig, fortuitously enough, was being president of Georgia Tech. This initiative is his idea, and a major thrust of his young administration. He claims "Smithsonian 2.0" will not be one of those feel-good events after which hibernation resumes.

"With digitization and with the Web, we can see it all. We can see it all!" he exults.

Even Natural History's big ole elephant?

"It will take awhile."

For more than a century and a half, the Smithsonian's mission has been to increase and diffuse knowledge. But since the dawn of the Web, it's been a laggard on the diffusion part.

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