August 29, 2013
In a first of its kind, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough has published a new e-book, entitled Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age. As a call to action, Clough charts the course that the Smithsonian will follow in the coming years in digitizing its artifacts, crowdsourcing its research and opening up its collections for public interpretation and consumption. “Today digital technology is pervasive, ” he writes, “its use, particularly by the world’s youth, is universal; its possibilities are vast; and everyone in our educational and cultural institutions is trying to figure out what to do with it all. It is mandatory that museums, libraries, and archives join with educational institutions in embracing it.”
We sat down with Secretary Clough to learn about his motivation for writing the book, the difficulties in digitizing 14 million objects and his favorite digitization projects so far.
What first got you interested in digitization and thinking about the Smithsonian’s involvement with it?
I’ve been involved with computing all my professional life. I tell people that when I went to Georgia Tech as an undergraduate, the first course I had was how to use a slide rule, and the last one was how to use a computer. I put the slide rule away, and became very involved with computing. My thesis, at Berkeley, in the 60s, used a CDC 6600 machine to simulate complex environments. This kind of technology revolutionized the way we could think about geology and engineering.
Later, in my life as a faculty member and an educator, I used computing throughout. At Duke, the first assignment they gave me was teaching a freshman course in computing, and I really had a ball doing it, so it’s been something I’ve been at for a long time. As an administrator, I always had people trying to sell me different technological tools that would revolutionize education. All the same, it wasn’t quite time yet. The tools weren’t robust enough, they were too balky, they couldn’t be scaled.
When I came to the Smithsonian, it was clear to me that there was a huge potential and that we were finally at a tipping point in terms of the tools that we could use. What was happening was that everyone had their own devices, and then apps came along, and offered huge possibilities. Social media came along. And now it’s changing so fast. Just a few years ago, we didn’t have social media, and now Smithsonian has 3.5 million people following us on social media.
In those early years, what we did was experiment. I said ‘let a thousand flowers bloom.’ So we put up a venture fund called the Smithsonian 2.0 fund. Then through the Gates Foundation, we established a $30 million endowment for reaching new audiences, so we let people compete for those funds. All of a sudden, people were coming up with great ideas, so we could see things happening, but we didn’t have an umbrella over it.
So that is the next step, and the book really is the thought process of how you put this together and make it work—keeping the innovative and creative spirit within it, not saying everything has to be the same, but at the same time lift all parts of the Smithsonian up in digitization. It’s not going to be workable for us to have two museums at the top of their fields in this area, and 16 not. So how do we move everybody up into the game? The opportunities are there for us to reach people everywhere, and to me, the timing is just perfect to implement these ideas.
What, in a nutshell, is your vision for the digital future of the Smithsonian? In 10, 20, or 30 years, what are going to be some of the key ways the Institution embraces digitization and uses it to give access to the public?
Looking down the road, we will see people engaged in the creative activities of the Institution. In the past, the creative activities were entirely behind the walls of museums and collection centers. The public only got to access that through labels in exhibitions, which told them what we thought. Now, in this new world, people actually will help us design exhibitions, and it will be interactive. We have a beta version of a volunteer site, for example, that has several hundred working with us on projects. Essentially, you put up tasks, and volunteers can choose which ones they want to do. They submit their credentials, then, say, transcribe a cursive journal. Fundamentally, they’re taking things that have never been seen before by the public and making them available.
There are also cases where people know more about certain artifacts than we do. We have lots of implements from Native American tribes, and they may know more about them than we do, and we’d love for them to tell us about those objects. People are going to be engaged with us in a conversation, not a monologue. We’re not the ‘Voice of God’ anymore.
It’ll also mean letting people share in our research. We have this thing called LeafSnap, an app that identifies tree species based on images of their leaves. And if you take a picture and tell us you did it, we know where you were, and we know what that tree is. So we’re now mapping tree ranges based on people’s reports of that information. In the future, that’ll be extremely valuable, because as global warming hits, ranges of trees will change. Up at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, we have the Colorful Cosmos project, where kids in a hundred museums are able to use their telescopes, and those kids are able to talk to Smithsonian scientists. That never would have happened before.
The other thing is that fundamentally, this is going to change the way our Institution works. We’re going to have to be a much more flexible and adaptable Institution, because maybe the greatest technology today may not be in the future. If we don’t shift and move, we’ll get left behind.
In the book, you also wrote that you want Smithsonian to digitize 14 million objects as a start. How do you prioritize which objects to make digitally available first?
It’s a good question, because even 14 million is too big. It’s better than 137 million, but it’s a huge number. When you think about digitizing a three-dimensional object, somebody has to go get it, they need to bring it somewhere where there’s sophisticated scanners, they need to scan it, and then they need to process it and then put it back. Think about doing that 14 million times. They estimate that would take 50 years, at best.
So that’s why you have to prioritize. There are a few elements in that. One is that we kind of have an understanding of what we think people would want, and we’re also asking people what they would want. So our art collections, for example, contain around 400,000 art objects. So we’ve asked our art people, and they told us 20,000 objects that are the best of the best. So we’re going to do high-resolution digitization of those objects.
Once you’ve identified these, there are robots that can produce the images. So they can do it relatively quickly. It’s a little gizmo, and it goes up to a painting on the wall, scans the thing, and then it’s finished. Then you put another painting on the wall, and it does that one.
Of the digitization projects the Smithsonian has done thus far, which are some of your favorites?
Well they’ve been at it for a few years now, and I’ve been fascinated by it. One of the first things they did was the Kennicott skull, which I keep on my desk and scare people with sometimes. I’ve also got a few other ones in my office—Lincoln’s death mask, and Owney, the postal dog. I’ve also got a 3D print of an instrument that will go up on a solar probe to measure the solar wind—it’ll go up in 2018, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory folks decided the best way to visualize it was to print it in plastic, so I’ve got that.
There’s also another story I really like. I went to a meeting with some of our people in the repatriation business—when a Native American tribe says, ‘we want this object back, and we can prove our ownership of it.’ Many of these objects are funerary items, so when the tribes get them back, they’ll bury them, and they’re gone from view. So our people have been saying to the tribes, ‘we’d love to make a three-dimensional copy of it,’ and with their permission, they’ve been making copies. They can paint the things, and they look exactly the same as the original objects. So in some cases, the tribes have seen the replicas, and said ‘wow, can you make some for us?’ Because they don’t want people handling the real deal, but want to have access to it. In some cases they’re even sending us their own objects, asking us to make copies.
To me, that’s where it’s all going. I just think it’s going to get cheaper, faster, quicker. It’ll take a while, but it makes things so accessible. You put the image or file on your iPad and can see the items, play with them. It really brings history alive.
With the book, you’re putting a statement out there that this sort of digitization is a priority for the Smithsonian. Why is it important that the Institution leads in this field?
When I came, people used to say ‘We’re the largest museum and science organization in the world.’ I’d say, ‘So what? We want to be the best.’
And if you want to be the best, that’s a big word. We’re one of the best in putting on exhibitions. We have the best collection of stamps, one of the best scientific collections. But you can’t be the best at your business if you walk away from anything this big. So if the Smithsonian wants to be a leader in museums, or astronomy, or whatever, it has to be a leader in the digital world.
The other thing is that this gives us a chance to deliver education to every person. And we can tailor the stories we tell based on the audience, and setting. And so suddenly, that “Voice of God” is no longer there. We can be much more considerate and thoughtful about what we provide. It’s very clear to me that we’re moving into a world where people want to customize the way they approach things. We provide teachers with lesson plans, for example, but they tell us that they just want to use them as a basic framework to put their own lessons in. We have a lesson plan on science in your backyard, but if you live in Tucson, it’d be a different story than the one you’d tell in Bellingham, Washington, where there’s tons of rain. So teachers want a framework, but they want to put their own substance in. So more and more, I think we’re going to be a facilitator.
The other thing is, once you start putting everything in the cloud, it all becomes a mixed bag. What’s the difference between the art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian when it’s in the cloud? People are going to be less concerned with where things come from. When they go to a museum, they’ve got to go to the Met or the Smithsonian. But when it’s in the cloud, they don’t really care. When they’re looking at a Winslow Homer painting in the cloud, they don’t care if it came from the Met or the Smithsonian—they’re just looking at a painting. So that’s going to change the way we do business and approach things. And I think, again, it’s a reason that it’s important for the Smithsonian to be a leader, so we can be controlling the options—at least understanding and appreciating and shaping the options—but if you’re not a leader, they’re going to shape you. People are looking to us to be a leader in this field.
When you put data about these artifacts in the cloud, how do you guard against technology becoming obsolete and losing access to this data?
We have a group working on this—they call it time-dependent materials. We have lots of objects in our collections that are subject to deterioration over time. The old film movies are a classic example of that, but there are lots of examples. Can you still read 8-track tapes? So we’ve got a group studying this, trying to figure out how to deal with it and ensure you have access in the future.
A good example of overcoming that sort of barrier, right now, is we have thousands of field journals that people made notes and illustrated with on hugely important expeditions. We have some of Charles Darwin’s notebooks. So in a way, that’s an obsolete medium, because few people can read it. But if you can digitize it, everyone can read it. So we have a volunteer transcription center to help transcribe cursive into a digital format.
You chose to publish these ideas in an e-book format. What do you think about the future of books and reading? Do you read on paper or e-books?
Well, when I got to the beach, I still like to have a real book. An iPad doesn’t work well out in the sun. But I’ve tried everything—iPads, Kindles, etc. Right now, it’s all about convenience, which is why I mostly use the iPad. If I’m sitting at the airport and realize I wanted to download a book, I can just download it right there. But I still like a real newspaper. The digital version doesn’t do as much for me. A real newspaper, you can flip back and forth, go back to earlier articles. But one thing I like about the iPad, I can go back and see what I read a few years ago. Sometimes I even go back and read the stuff I’ve finished over again years later.
Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age is available via a free PDF.
June 5, 2013
Two weeks ago, the Hirshhorn Museum’s Board of Trustees met to make a recommendation for the fate of the Seasonal Inflatable Structure project (popularly known as the “bubble”), a massive balloon to serve as a space for lectures, conferences and temporary think tanks on art and culture. Board members were divided over the financial viability of the project.
Today, the Smithsonian Institution announced that the project will not go forward due to cost concerns. In an email sent to Smithsonian employees, Richard Kurin, the Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, said simply that “‘The Bubble,’ a proposed venue at the Hirshhorn to be used for two months each year for programming devoted to arts and culture, will not move forward due to financial uncertainties.”
According to a press release, the decision was made by Kurin and Secretary Wayne Clough after consulting with the Smithsonian Board of Regents, the Hirshhorn’s Board of Trustees, museum staff, art museum directors, budget officers and others. “Without the prospect of needed funding, we cannot undertake this project at the same time we are facing significant financial challenges that affect the entire Smithsonian,” Clough said.
The bubble, which had been designed by the New York-based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, was envisioned as an architecturally daring addition to the museum that would help establish it as a forum for world-class arts events and conferences. But the cost of building and installing the structure was estimated to be $12.5 million, with only $7.8 million in funds raised or pledged thus far. Additionally, maintaining and inflating the bubble would cost $1 million annually.
“Without the full support of the museum’s board and the funding in place for the fabrication and a viable plan for the operation of the Bubble, we believe it is irresponsible to go forward,” Kurin said in the press release. “Architects, artists and Smithsonian staff have praised the bold vision of a temporary bubble-shaped structure on the Mall, but after four years of planning and fundraising, there was not enough funding to construct the Bubble and, more importantly, to sustain programming for years to come.”
May 23, 2013
In 2009, the Hirshhorn Museum announced plans for a dramatic, glowing balloon that would emerge out of the center of the circular building when inflated seasonally. The “Bubble,” as it came to be called, was conceived by the Hirshhorn’s director, Richard Koshalek, as an architecturally ambitious addition to the museum that would serve as a space for meetings, lectures and temporary think tanks about the arts and culture. But recently, cost projections for the Bubble, officially known as the Seasonal Inflatable Structure, had been reported to be unsustainable.
The fate of the project lay in the balance today as the museum’s board of trustees met to determine if the project would go forward. But at the meeting’s conclusion, Smithsonian Institution officials stated that the board had “failed to reach a consensus.” A final decision will be announced next month.
The museum’s director also announced his resignation to the board and to the museum staff to become effective at the end of the year.
Koshalek came to the Smithsonian in 2009 from the Art Center of College and Design in Pasadena, California with many bold ideas. Koshalek saw the Bubble design as a seasonal venue that would “house pop-up think tanks about the arts around the world,” according to architecture critic Joseph Giovannini in the May issue of Smithsonian magazine.
In an announcement to staff, Richard Kurin, the Institution’s undersecretary for history, arts and culture, said that Koshalek had brought “tremendous energy and creativity to the Hirshhorn.”
The New York-based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro conceived the blue, translucent structure as an “off kilter dome, jaunty as a beret,” wrote Giovannini, who also described the project as daring and innovative. But costs of the structure and its installation are estimated at $12.5 million, with only $7.8 million raised or committed to date. In addition, Smithsonian officials report that about $1 million would be required to maintain the project, covering the installation, de-installation and storage.
March 8, 2013
In a relatively short time, global emissions of carbon dioxide increased massively. Through the greenhouse effect, they raised temperatures around the planet by an average of 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit; they also changed the chemistry of the oceans, triggering a surge in acidity that may have led to mass extinctions among marine life. Overall, during this era of rapid change, global sea levels may have risen by as much as 65 feet.
Reading this, you could be forgiven if you assume we’re talking about a scenario related to the present-day climate crisis. But the previous paragraph actually refers to a 20,000-year-long period of warming that occurred 55 million years ago, an event scientists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM for short). Scott Wing, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum who has studied the PETM for more than 20 years, says, “If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially what we’re doing right now.”
As we embark on an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, the PETM is suddenly a hot topic among scientists in many disparate fields. “It’s an event that a lot of people are interested in, because it is the best example we have of a really sudden global warming connected to a large release of carbon,” Wing says.
Although scientists still don’t fully understand what triggered the PETM, it is clear that more and more carbon was injected into both the atmosphere and the oceans, initiating the climate change. This carbon may have been supplied by volcanic activity, the spontaneous combustion of peat or even the impact of a particularly carbon-rich comet. Additionally, the initial warming likely led to a release of methane gas from the seafloor, acting as a positive feedback that led to even more climate change. It’s also clear that all this warming wreaked havoc on the world’s ecosystems, leading to extinctions and altering the ranges of numerous plant and animal species.
There is, of course, one key difference: During this previous episode, all that warming took several thousand years. This time, carbon emissions are rising ten times faster than during the PETM, with the warming happening in a century—the geologic equivalent of a blink of an eye.
Scott Wing researches the PETM by digging for ancient plant remains in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Over several decades of work, he has constructed a general picture of what types of plants thrived before, during and after the warming period, attempting to identify the sorts of trends in plant life we can expect as we change the climate going forward.
“During the warm period, essentially none of the plants that had lived in the area previously survived—their local populations were driven extinct,” Wing says. The area had been dominated by ancestors of the types of plants that live in temperate deciduous forests today, such as dogwood, sycamore and redwood trees.
But as the region heated up, these were replaced by a variety of plants related to the present-day bean family, most commonly found in warmer, drier areas such as southern Mexico or Costa Rica. “We believe that what happened is the dispersal into this region of plants that were living somewhere else, probably much farther south,” says Wing. His team has also uncovered evidence that the warmer climate led to a greater level of insect pest damage on the plants that did survive the PETM.
His research has, however, turned up one trend from the PETM that could be a reason to hope ecosystems can someday rebound from climate change. After roughly 200,000 years, long after the PETM subsided and temperatures returned to normal, many of the temperate plants that had lived in the Bighorn Basin finally returned.
“One possible explanation,” Wing says, “is that there were cooler climates in the nearby mountains that served as refuges for these species.” In that scenario—one that he and his research team plan to more closely investigate as they continue to excavate and piece together the fossil record—these types of plants would have waited out the PETM in the relatively cold highlands, then returned to recolonize the basin afterward.
If our climate continues to change as rapidly as it has over the past few decades, though, such a scenario seems less likely—immobile organisms such as plants need hundreds of years to gradually migrate from one area to another. Thus, one key aspect of preserving our planet’s ecosystems, in addition to limiting climate change as much as possible, is slowing it down as much as we can.
February 15, 2013
Today, at around 9:20 a.m. local time in Chelyabinsk, Russia, a massive 11-ton meteor burned up in the sky, triggering a sonic boom that damaged buildings and shattered windows in six cities and reportedly injured hundreds. Eyewitnesses say the meteor’s shockingly bright flash as it burned up (10 seconds into the Russia Today video above) was briefly brighter than the morning sun.
That this event happened today—the same day a 147-foot wide asteroid will whiz extremely close to the Earth at 2:26 p.m. EST—seems to be a coincidence of astronomical proportions, as experts say the two events are entirely unrelated. But unlike the asteroid, which will cause no physical damage, the meteor’s sonic boom as it entered the atmosphere, fractured roughly 18 to 32 miles above the ground and subsequently rained fragments over the region, led to as many as 900 injuries, 31 hospitalizations and widespread damage including the collapse of a rooftop at a zinc factory .
So, what caused this massive explosion? “For one, meteors move extremely fast—faster than the speed of sound—so there’s a ton of friction being generated as it comes through the atmosphere,” says Cari Corrigan, a geologist with the Natural History Museum who specializes in meteors. “If there are any weaknesses in it already, or if there is ice that melts and leaves empty fractures—like freezing and thawing in a pothole—it could easily explode.”
To get a knotty bit of nomenclature out of the way, meteor refers to a variety of pieces of debris—made up of either rock, metal, or a mix of the two—that enter the atmosphere from outer space. Before doing so, they’re called meteoroids. Most burn up entirely during their descent, but if any intact fragments do make it to the ground, they’re called meteorites. Meteors are also called “shooting stars” because of the heat and light produced when they slam into the still atmosphere at supersonic speeds—today’s meteor was estimated to be traveling faster than 33,000 m.p.h.
The distinction between this meteor and the asteroid that will fly past us later today, according to Corrigan, is a matter of size and origin. “Asteroids are generally bigger, and they typically come from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter,” she says. The size difference also explains why we were able to predict the arrival of the asteroid nearly a year ago, but this meteor caught us by surprise: It’s impossible to spot the smaller meteoroids up in space with our telescopes.
Meteors like the one that fell today aren’t exceedingly rare, but for one to cause this much damage is almost unheard of. “There are events like this in recorded history, but this is likely the first time it’s happened over such a populated area and this level of destruction has been documented,” Corrigan says. Notable meteors in recorded history include the Tunguska event (a 1908 explosion over a remote area in Russia that knocked down more than 80 million trees covering an area of some 830-square miles), the Benld meteorite (a small object that landed in Illinois in 1938 that punctured the roof of a car) and the Carancas impact (a 2007 meteorite that crashed in a Peruvian village and may have caused groundwater contamination).
Much larger meteorites have fallen in prehistory and been discovered much later, including the Willamette Meteorite, a 32,000-pound hunk of iron that fell millennia ago and was transported to Oregon during the last ice age. The largest meteorite ever discovered in North America, it is now part of the collections of the Natural History Museum.
Early reports suggest that remnants of the meteor have fallen into a reservoir near the town of Chebarkul; testing on these meteorite fragments could provide more information on the object’s composition and origin. “It might be an ordinary chondrite—which is what 90 percent of the meteorites that we have are made of—or it could be something more rare,” Corrigan says.
While chondrites are made mostly of stone and result from the relatively recent breakup of asteroids, iron meteorites originate from the cores of more ancient asteroids, and even rarer types come from debris broken off from the moon or Mars. ”Every meteorite that we get is another piece of the puzzle,” says Corrigan. “They’re clues towards how the solar system and Earth were formed.”