Warning that American education and research have fallen behind, the new head of the Smithsonian Institution has launched an ambitious effort to digitize its 137 million artifacts and use social-networking tools to reach a new generation of learners.
"Technology and new modes of communication based on the World Wide Web are dramatically altering the way people access, interact with, and communicate knowledge," said G. Wayne Clough, who formally became the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on Jan. 26 but has been on the job for about six months.
At the same time, "International test scores show American children falling further behind those of most of the other developed nations at the very time our competitors are focused on winning the battle for technology-based jobs," said Clough during his installation ceremony.
A former Georgia Tech president with degrees in engineering, Clough promised to "chart a bold path" in bringing the world’s largest museum complex into the 21st century.
"Our goal should be no less than to build the foundation for a new era for this great institution," he said. "The explosive growth of new communication and networking tools provides us a unique opportunity to share our vast collections and other resources in ways not possible before, with people all around the globe."
Some of this work had begun under Clough’s predecessors, including a web site–www.smithsonianeducation.org–that includes free lesson plans (correlated with state standards) to help teachers make use of some 1,500 digital artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collections.
But fewer than 1 percent of the institution’s collections have been digitized so far–and that’s not nearly enough, Clough declares.
"Our job is to authenticate and inform the significance of the collections, not to control access to them," he said. "It is no longer acceptable for us to share only 1 percent of our 137 million specimens and artifacts in an age when the internet has made it possible to share them all."
Clough’s goal is to digitally photograph or scan each object and publish it online, accompanied by curatorial content from Smithsonian experts.
Another example of how the Smithsonian will use technology to broaden its reach is a series of free online education conferences that will launch Feb. 4 in cooperation with LearningTimes LLC.
This first online conference will focus on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln through live presentations, moderated forums, and demonstrations of resource materials.
In addition, an online exhibit hall will allow educators to experience virtually what Washington, D.C., area teachers have experienced for years at the Smithsonian’s annual education expo, known as Smithsonian Teachers’ Night. In the virtual exhibit hall, educators will learn more about the Smithsonian’s classroom-ready online resources.
Registration for the conferences is free and open to everyone. All of the conference sessions will be recorded and archived, and they can be replayed at any time via the web.
"As with the Lincoln conference, each conference in the series will have a single theme or topic explored through the lens of several different disciplines by Smithsonian curators," said Stephanie Norby, director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. "With just a computer and access to the internet, participants can get a behind-the-scenes look into the Smithsonian’s collections of artifacts, artworks, and documents from the perspectives of history, science, and art."
Clough faces significant challenges in implementing his vision for the Smithsonian and its 19 museums.
Just one day after his formal installation as secretary, he announced a hiring freeze and eliminated salary increases and bonuses for one class of the institution’s highest-paid employees in response to the current economic crisis. He also asked several departments to reduce their current-year budgets by 5 to 8 percent. The value of the Smithsonian’s endowment reportedly dropped by 25 percent last year.
But there is room for hope in the stimulus package wending its way through Congress, which includes $150 million for the Smithsonian. And Clough addressed the institution’s financial challenges in his Jan. 26 speech.
"To be successful, we must be innovative, disciplined, focused, nimble, and more self-reliant than in the past," he said. “…Since it was founded, the Smithsonian has benefited from the generosity of the American people and the Congress. Today, we must be clear with the Congress on these issues and entrepreneurial with the public in seeking outside support."
Before his appointment to the Smithsonian, Clough served as president of Georgia Tech for 14 years. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Georgia Tech in 1964 and 1965 and a doctorate in 1969 in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.