Smithsonian Click-n-Drags Itself Forward
Cyber Thinkers, Curators Discuss Digital Challenges

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.

The institution authenticates and informs and makes snazzy presentations in magnificent buildings. Of the Smithsonian's 137 million artifacts, however, not only is less than 1 percent on display, but most of that is in Washington. You have to come to the Smithsonian. It doesn't much come to you.

For example, as part of the "Smithsonian 2.0" weekend, the techie VIPs were brought into the treasure houses behind the displays. By all accounts, the experience was stellar. They gushed about the curator who could explain the entire universe in five minutes and then put a meteorite in your hand.

The problem is, that's not the Smithsonian experience for the average Joe, even if he goes to the time and trouble of buying a ticket to Washington. It absolutely is not the experience of the kid with the peanut-butter-sticky computer in the underheated library in Rock Springs, Wyo.

The question for attendees of the "Smithsonian 2.0" discussion was, how can you get everything -- every thing, every last dung-rolling beetle -- out there where everyone in the world can get equally excited about it?

The core group of outsiders were heavy dudes, as these things go. The principal presenters included Bran Ferren, co-chairman and chief creative officer of the legendary Applied Minds Inc. (Before that he was president of research and development and creative technology for Walt Disney.) Clay Shirky is the author of the acclaimed "Here Comes Everybody," the recent book that looks at the seismic changes being brought about by decentralized, bottom-up, peer-to-peer technologies. George Oates is one of the founders of Flickr, the photo-sharing phenomenon.

One of the more memorable moments, however, was watching the prophet of the best-selling book "The Long Tail" preach to the keepers of the "nation's attic."

That would be Wired's Anderson. His "long tail" hypothesis has revolutionized how Web entrepreneurs think about their businesses. The basic idea, he explained at the event, was that in the Industrial Age, sales of anything were limited by shelf space. The result was the elevation of a priesthood of curators, editors and gatekeepers whose job it was to try to winnow through everything and offer up what they thought might be the best of the best -- or at least the most likely to sell to the most people.

The Web has changed all that, Anderson points out, even though many of today's retailers are still limited by their shelf space. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, might carry 50,000 tracks of recorded music, while there might be 10 million cuts available on the Web. Even the biggest brick-and-mortar bookstores carry only the tiniest fraction of all the books available from Amazon. Similarly, there are only so many pages in any newspaper or magazine -- including Anderson's own, he was quick to point out.

These days, not only can you now easily find everything online but -- here's the key point -- the bestsellers are no longer the heart and soul of commerce. The barely known but easily discoverable works combined far outsell all the bestsellers -- because there are so many of them. A jillion books that sell 500 or even five copies per year are vastly more numerous -- and collectively more profitable -- than anybody's top-10 list.

Unlimited abundance via the Web is not the only reason for the end of the curatorial function of the 20th century, Anderson said. It's also that the gatekeepers "got it wrong every time." Every month, Anderson said, he picks which story will be on the cover of Wired, and every single month some other story ends up being the most read.

"If you're given infinite choice and the tools to help you find stuff, then we will start to diversify our choice, and define our communities of interest," he told the audience. "It often turns out that the stuff we love the most is the stuff that's not the blockbuster. The stuff that we all like collectively -- the Super Bowl -- are things we don't feel as passionately about. Less popular things are actually more meaningful to us as individuals."

Anderson's fetish, for example, is Lego robots. In what might be a mammoth understatement, he revealed that there is no place for this interest in his magazine. But online, he has found a community of people like him.

The discovery of the "long tail" principle has implications for museums because it means there is vast room at the bottom for everything. Which means, Anderson said, that curators need to get over themselves. Their influence will never be the same.

"The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich," he said. "The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, 'We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We're not perfect, but we get better over time.' "

If you think that notion gives indigestion to an organization like the Smithsonian -- full of people who have devoted much of their lifetimes to bringing near-perfect luster to some tiny pearl of truth -- you would be correct.

The problem is, "the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them," Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. "Not only that, but you can't find them. They can find you, but you can't find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert."

Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian's got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, "If you know something about this, tell us." Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. "I'll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job" in authenticating it and explaining it. "It would be the best free labor that you can imagine."

It didn't go down easily among the thought leaders, who have staked their lives' work on authoritativeness, on avoiding strikethroughs. What about the quality and strength of the knowledge we offer? asked one Smithsonian attendee.

You don't get it, Anderson suggested. "There aren't enough of you. Your skills cannot be invested in enough areas to give that quality."

It's like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, Anderson said. Some Wikipedia entries certainly are not as perfectly polished as the Britannica. But "most of the things I'm interested in are not in the Britannica. In exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things. Something is better than nothing." And right now at the Smithsonian, what you get, he said, is "great" or "nothing."

"Is it our job to be smart and be the best? Or is it our job to share knowledge?" Anderson asked.

That's a profound question for the Smithsonian.

"It's a psychological process you have to go through."

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