Thoughts on the Smithsonian Commons

Reading the Smithsonian’s recent announcement of the debut of the Smithsonian Commons Prototype and playing around on that page has left me feeling rather ambivalent, with more questions than answers.

I like the impetus behind the project– it’s ambitious and well-intentioned. Integrating the Institution’s many web presences, putting them in an environment where the user has more control of how they use and experience it, allowing guests to collect and curate, themselves, rather than maintaining the position that curation is a rarefied activity best left to experts– these are commendable goals, and the Commons, if it lives up to the promises of the Prototype page, will deliver on these things. But part of me feels like it’s just… insufficient.

“Vast, findable, shareable, and free” is a great start. But it’s not enough. What is lacking is any definition of openness, or any commitment to a specific vision of what openness means.


The goal of the project seems to be an opening up of the Smithsonian to a wider public– and I think that’s a great goal. But I worry that where the prototype has currently settled is may be giving more lip service to the principle of openness than it is embracing what that principle entails. This is where I start to have a lot of questions.

The prototype page promises that the Commons represents a “dedicat[tion] to stimulating learning, creation, and innovation through open access to Smithsonian research, collections and communities.” And yet how open will that access truly be? In the four video use-cases presented by the prototype page, I see very little openness with data. I primarily see a more social approach to playing in the Smithsonian’s sandbox. Letting others play in your sandbox is definitely a step toward openness, but true openness is letting others walk away with your sand and do whatever they want with it.

To put it another way: “Screws better than glues.” Ownership is about the ability to alter, remake, use, remix, or hack. And you need to give your visitors data, not just let them see it. Being open with information in the digital age means not just allowing people to look at your books, but letting them walk away with a copy and seeing what they can do with it. Until that point, you’re not really being open. You’re just being transparent.


Openness is a moving target, of course. There’s “open” and then there’s open. And there are some indications that the project has the potential to be truly open. But they are somewhat ambiguous. In the use-case videos, two things are mentioned that give me hope that this could be a truly open project.

The first thing was that, in the video of the teacher, she is able to download her collection from the Smithsonian Commons and use it– in this case, by making a Powerpoint for her fourth-graders out of images of Teddy Roosevelt she has gathered. This is hardly particularly exciting– she could have done the same thing by mastering the elusive “left mouse click” technique. But is this all the download function will allow you to do, or is it just a failing of imagination on the part of this hypothetical teacher? I want to know– how much metadata will be downloaded when you use that download tool? What format will your data come in? Will it be a rich enough data set to let you really do something with it?

But second, and perhaps more excitingly, the Smithsonian Commons will have an API. Of course, that can mean a lot of things. Will this API be available to any developer who wants to incorporate Smithsonian resources into his or her own site, or is it an internal API that allows all the various SI museum sites and digital archives (which run on a variety of different CMSs) to interoperate and participate in the Commons? And if it is public– how expansive will it be? Some APIs are limited to highly specific functionalities, where others really let you get into the guts of the thing and really do something innovative. Which will this be?


People trust Google. Not everyone, of course, and as Jeff Jarvis has been pointing out a lot lately, a lot more Americans do than Europeans. But ultimately, it’s a trusted company. They have access to everything on my phone, my email, they have access to 98% of my search activity… Normally, I’d say that anyone who trusted a profit-driven company that much was either crazy or stupid. And yet I do it. Why?

There’s a couple things. One is openness. Even before the Data Liberation Front initiative, Google was fairly good about letting me export my data. I can take my ball and go home, because they let me own my data, even if they also own my data.

But the other one– the really big one– is their commitment to not being evil. The adoption of the motto “Don’t be evil” was a step toward the creation of a certain type of culture– one that was constantly asking certain fundamental questions when coming into new projects– What does it mean to be evil? Is this new project evil? Can it be used for evil? Do its implications for malfeasant use overwhelm its potential for good or convenience?

Openness, like I said, is a moving target. What the Smithsonian needs to do, in approaching this project which has the potential to be really revolutionary, is to work on creating a similar culture, one that is always questioning openness. What does it mean to be open? How open can we be, here? Is this project being executed in the most open way possible?

As a publicly supported institution, openness should be seen as a moral obligation, a key element of the SI’s mission. Public institutions need to see “open” as the default, not the exception. And yet, looking through the SI’s web and new media strategy wiki, I don’t see that sort of discussion going on. The adjective “open” is used a lot, but there’s not as much grappling with what it means, or what it implies.


I hope none of this comes off as negative toward the Smithsonian or toward the Smithsonian Commons project. I think it’s a great idea. As the Jefferson Library’s Eric Johnson has pointed out, in some ways, Smithsonian 2.0 is really getting back to the organizational structures of Smithsonian 0.2. Under Spencer Baird’s tenure, the Smithsonian’s collections grew exponentially because of the crowdsourcing of knowledge in the form of specimens sent in by amateurs and hobbyists. Moreover, many of those doing the curation and gatekeeping during this period were, likewise, not exactly formally trained. They learned by doing– on-the-job training that taught how museums work by forcing you to make a museum work.

It’s natural that some museum workers– like many in academia– will have resistances to openness. After all, museums and universities are the great organizers of Knowledge. Their identity is often contingent upon their reputation for being able to separate wisdom from hokum, to selectively place that seal of approval on the true and disavow the false. And years and years of schooling and job experience are invested in credentialing, in the creation of the trust necessary to make such pronouncements authoritative and accurate. Openness can be seen as threatening to this, with its non-hierarchical structures, armchair experts, and “wisdom of crowds.” Working toward a truly open model for a project like the Smithsonian Commons is, in some ways, going to be an uphill battle. But the first step of that battle has to be changing the discourse, actually forcing people to discuss, tease out, interrogate the principle of openness.

For the Smithsonian to move forward and remain relevant, not to mention for it to remain true to its mission as a public institution– it needs to take a hard look at these questions when beginning a project with as much potential as the Smithsonian Commons.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival began today. There is a quote from Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, under whose tenure at the SI the Folklife Festival began, that pertains just as much to the advent of the Smithsonian Commons as it does to the founding of the Festival: “Take the objects out of their cases and make them sing.”

The Smithsonian Commons is a project that could well have just that ability, to unbind the vast collective knowledge of the Smithsonian Institution and put it out there for the whole world to experience.

The question of openness can be reduced to this: you can take the objects out of their cases. But do you just want to put them in front of a worldwide public, or to put them in their hands?

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Smithsonian Commons

  1. Aileen

    Thanks for directing my attention to this project. I’m finding it really interesting, especially with the interest my corporate overlords have in entering the digital realm. (Unfortunately, we don’t seem to believe in the “Don’t be evil” theory some of the time. I come up with some really elaborate conspiracy theories involving our HR and Finance departments at times.) Your points about the teacher presentation are dead on. Of course, mastering the mouse click isn’t always that easy. We are legally required to disable that capability on anything we produce.

    What I work on at work does not allow for openness unfortunately. And as long as other organizations are coming along and offering greater openness than we do, I think our days may be numbered. At some point, I’d love to spend some time chatting with you about this stuff. I spend my days trying to figure out how a multinational corporation can make money in this enterprise in the K-12 space. I’m not sure that it’s possible but you’ve been giving me much to think about.

    • Tad

      Well, there’s profits to be minded in private companies. Openness is not incompatible with profit– see Chris Anderson’s “Free”– but it’s a lot more unconventional a route. Which is why the publicly subsidized and publicly funded institutions– the SI, the Library of Congress, the National Archives– need to be leading the charge.

  2. Aileen

    Thanks for directing my attention to this project. I’m finding it really interesting, especially with the interest my corporate overlords have in entering the digital realm. (Unfortunately, we don’t seem to believe in the “Don’t be evil” theory some of the time. I come up with some really elaborate conspiracy theories involving our HR and Finance departments at times.) Your points about the teacher presentation are dead on. Of course, mastering the mouse click isn’t always that easy. We are legally required to disable that capability on anything we produce.

    What I work on at work does not allow for openness unfortunately. And as long as other organizations are coming along and offering greater openness than we do, I think our days may be numbered. At some point, I’d love to spend some time chatting with you about this stuff. I spend my days trying to figure out how a multinational corporation can make money in this enterprise in the K-12 space. I’m not sure that it’s possible but you’ve been giving me much to think about.

    • Tad

      Well, there’s profits to be minded in private companies. Openness is not incompatible with profit– see Chris Anderson’s “Free”– but it’s a lot more unconventional a route. Which is why the publicly subsidized and publicly funded institutions– the SI, the Library of Congress, the National Archives– need to be leading the charge.

  3. Aileen

    No, it’s not, but our (the peons) efforts to get at least some pieces open (a great plan from a marketing perspective as far as we are concerned) are repeatedly met with rejecting, revision, and death by a million paper cuts. I’d love to see the public institutions lead the charge and to be able to point to them as resources to supplement what we do.

  4. Aileen

    No, it’s not, but our (the peons) efforts to get at least some pieces open (a great plan from a marketing perspective as far as we are concerned) are repeatedly met with rejecting, revision, and death by a million paper cuts. I’d love to see the public institutions lead the charge and to be able to point to them as resources to supplement what we do.

  5. Excellent blog post about openness Tad – – you’ve done us a great service by opening a public conversation about what I believe is the single most important issue facing the institution today. The Smithsonian Commons prototype was in many ways conceived to advance exactly this discussion by providing an accessible storyline to associate with the sometimes challenging and disruptive topics of copyright, intellectual property policy, and mission.

    Would you be willing to help me write a script for a fifth prototype story—one that addresses the kind of openness you want? I’ll produce it! The wiki is there waiting for us…

    There are a variety of opinions about openness at the Institution right now, but the Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy (http://smithsonian-webstrategy.wikispaces.com/The+Smithsonian+Commons+–+A+Place+to+Begin) is clear about our intention to establish “intellectual-property permissions that clearly give users the right to use, re-use, share, and innovate with our content without unnecessary restrictions.” The strategy also invokes the precedents of the Creative Commons, Science Commons, ccLearn, the Flickr Commons, the Internet Archive, MIT Open Courseware, and others to show the direction we’re headed. In addition, we’ve asserted that enclosing and attempting to directly monetize access to collections “does not appear to be a sustainable business model.” These points are the foundation for the policy development process and cultural changes that will be necessary to really move forward.

    (Note the word “unnecessary” in the strategy statement above – – some restrictions will be necessary because, for example, we don’t own copyright on everything in our collections, some collections are encumbered by legal privacy requirements, etc.)

    Part of the way I think we’re going to make progress on openness and the values and outcomes you articulate is by using the Smithsonian Commons to clarify and standardize our IP assertions and to demonstrate the value that can be created through unrestricted reuse and network effects.

    I agree completely that the Smithsonian Commons shouldn’t be just about building a bigger, better Smithsonian sandbox. (Though I’m coming to understand that our users are quite interested in having an excellent Smithsonian sandbox to play in!) While some of the commons prototype stories dwell on the specifics of user experience on our own Web sites, much of the effort of the prototype went into envisioning the good stuff that happens when clear and permissive IP policies and good user experience design encourage use outside the Institution: we give the teacher clarity about IP status and we save her a lot of time getting our stuff out of the commons and onto her desktop in a variety of formats; we give the amateur astronomer clarity about IP status and an API for access and reuse; the millennial is seeing the effects of our content almost everywhere but our Web sites.

    Through the prototyping process we’re starting to give ourselves a comfort level with the aspirations and realities of open content. Also see the “What is a Commons” paper at http://www.slideshare.net/edsonm/m-4402558 for another point-of-reference on our thinking.

    • Tad

      Michael–

      Sorry for the slow reply– I’ve been swamped this last week.

      I’d be really happy to work with you on a fifth scenario… I think it would only add to the demo. And you’re right, the Amateur Scientist scenario really does point toward the possibilities of an API. It just left me with a lot of questions about what kinds of things the API will and will not allow users to do.

      As a historian, it also left me wondering about metadata, etc. The one place you see the API really at work, it’s for an astronomer. Which left me thinking about metadata and standards and interoperability and all sorts of things. Implemented the right way, this could be an AMAZING resource for History of Science folks, and other interdisciplinary sorts who lie on the edges of the sciences and the humanities.

      Part of the way I think we’re going to make progress on openness and the values and outcomes you articulate is by using the Smithsonian Commons to clarify and standardize our IP assertions and to demonstrate the value that can be created through unrestricted reuse and network effects.

      I think this is the heart of it. And I think what I was really getting at is that the conversation needs to be overt (without shoving things down people’s throats, etc.) The Smithsonian is not exactly a monoculture. Heck, from my limited time there, I’m starting to see how much even the National Postal Museum is not at all a monoculture. I think that keeping people talking about it is key. And demonstrating value is a very important part of that.

      At the AHA a couple years ago, there was a panel on whether or not the American Revolution was, historiographically speaking, a settled question. The three panelists quickly came to a consensus that it was not a settled question by a long shot– but that it was an abandoned question, for many scholars. It had just stopped being discussed as much. And that gives the illusion that consensus has been reached. And I think something like that is a real danger for issues of openness with large, bureaucratic organizations like SI when it comes to digital projects. If people don’t keep being reintroduced to the fundamental questions, there becomes an illusion that the question is settled. And human nature is to assume that it was settled because most people see things your way.

      That’s kind of what I was getting at when I was talking about creating a culture that constantly interrogates the fundamental issues of openness.

  6. Excellent blog post about openness Tad – – you’ve done us a great service by opening a public conversation about what I believe is the single most important issue facing the institution today. The Smithsonian Commons prototype was in many ways conceived to advance exactly this discussion by providing an accessible storyline to associate with the sometimes challenging and disruptive topics of copyright, intellectual property policy, and mission.

    Would you be willing to help me write a script for a fifth prototype story—one that addresses the kind of openness you want? I’ll produce it! The wiki is there waiting for us…

    There are a variety of opinions about openness at the Institution right now, but the Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy (http://smithsonian-webstrategy.wikispaces.com/The+Smithsonian+Commons+–+A+Place+to+Begin) is clear about our intention to establish “intellectual-property permissions that clearly give users the right to use, re-use, share, and innovate with our content without unnecessary restrictions.” The strategy also invokes the precedents of the Creative Commons, Science Commons, ccLearn, the Flickr Commons, the Internet Archive, MIT Open Courseware, and others to show the direction we’re headed. In addition, we’ve asserted that enclosing and attempting to directly monetize access to collections “does not appear to be a sustainable business model.” These points are the foundation for the policy development process and cultural changes that will be necessary to really move forward.

    (Note the word “unnecessary” in the strategy statement above – – some restrictions will be necessary because, for example, we don’t own copyright on everything in our collections, some collections are encumbered by legal privacy requirements, etc.)

    Part of the way I think we’re going to make progress on openness and the values and outcomes you articulate is by using the Smithsonian Commons to clarify and standardize our IP assertions and to demonstrate the value that can be created through unrestricted reuse and network effects.

    I agree completely that the Smithsonian Commons shouldn’t be just about building a bigger, better Smithsonian sandbox. (Though I’m coming to understand that our users are quite interested in having an excellent Smithsonian sandbox to play in!) While some of the commons prototype stories dwell on the specifics of user experience on our own Web sites, much of the effort of the prototype went into envisioning the good stuff that happens when clear and permissive IP policies and good user experience design encourage use outside the Institution: we give the teacher clarity about IP status and we save her a lot of time getting our stuff out of the commons and onto her desktop in a variety of formats; we give the amateur astronomer clarity about IP status and an API for access and reuse; the millennial is seeing the effects of our content almost everywhere but our Web sites.

    Through the prototyping process we’re starting to give ourselves a comfort level with the aspirations and realities of open content. Also see the “What is a Commons” paper at http://www.slideshare.net/edsonm/m-4402558 for another point-of-reference on our thinking.

    • Tad

      Michael–

      Sorry for the slow reply– I’ve been swamped this last week.

      I’d be really happy to work with you on a fifth scenario… I think it would only add to the demo. And you’re right, the Amateur Scientist scenario really does point toward the possibilities of an API. It just left me with a lot of questions about what kinds of things the API will and will not allow users to do.

      As a historian, it also left me wondering about metadata, etc. The one place you see the API really at work, it’s for an astronomer. Which left me thinking about metadata and standards and interoperability and all sorts of things. Implemented the right way, this could be an AMAZING resource for History of Science folks, and other interdisciplinary sorts who lie on the edges of the sciences and the humanities.

      Part of the way I think we’re going to make progress on openness and the values and outcomes you articulate is by using the Smithsonian Commons to clarify and standardize our IP assertions and to demonstrate the value that can be created through unrestricted reuse and network effects.

      I think this is the heart of it. And I think what I was really getting at is that the conversation needs to be overt (without shoving things down people’s throats, etc.) The Smithsonian is not exactly a monoculture. Heck, from my limited time there, I’m starting to see how much even the National Postal Museum is not at all a monoculture. I think that keeping people talking about it is key. And demonstrating value is a very important part of that.

      At the AHA a couple years ago, there was a panel on whether or not the American Revolution was, historiographically speaking, a settled question. The three panelists quickly came to a consensus that it was not a settled question by a long shot– but that it was an abandoned question, for many scholars. It had just stopped being discussed as much. And that gives the illusion that consensus has been reached. And I think something like that is a real danger for issues of openness with large, bureaucratic organizations like SI when it comes to digital projects. If people don’t keep being reintroduced to the fundamental questions, there becomes an illusion that the question is settled. And human nature is to assume that it was settled because most people see things your way.

      That’s kind of what I was getting at when I was talking about creating a culture that constantly interrogates the fundamental issues of openness.

  7. Mike touches on an important point about what people actually *want* from the Smithsonian (and museums in general). I heard a very interesting presentation from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia recently. They have had their collection database available via download/API for a while now – they are leaders on this “openness” front. What they have found is that while this is was a radical/exciting development among proponents who care about such things, in reality hardly anyone has made use of it. This is particularly true for the education audience, who they thought would be eager to use raw data in the ways that you mention. Instead, teachers and students continue to gravitate toward specific bits of content that support their curriculum, and the more traditional, mediated “online exhibit” type of material. Maybe this will change and it still may be an important avenue for the Smithsonian to pursue. But for now, the evidence available to me shows that the public demand to see a lot more of the Smithsonian’s “stuff” online along with reliable interpretation, and have some social functionality around that content, is much greater than the demand to “walk away with our stuff and do whatever they want with it.”

  8. Mike touches on an important point about what people actually *want* from the Smithsonian (and museums in general). I heard a very interesting presentation from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia recently. They have had their collection database available via download/API for a while now – they are leaders on this “openness” front. What they have found is that while this is was a radical/exciting development among proponents who care about such things, in reality hardly anyone has made use of it. This is particularly true for the education audience, who they thought would be eager to use raw data in the ways that you mention. Instead, teachers and students continue to gravitate toward specific bits of content that support their curriculum, and the more traditional, mediated “online exhibit” type of material. Maybe this will change and it still may be an important avenue for the Smithsonian to pursue. But for now, the evidence available to me shows that the public demand to see a lot more of the Smithsonian’s “stuff” online along with reliable interpretation, and have some social functionality around that content, is much greater than the demand to “walk away with our stuff and do whatever they want with it.”

    • Tad

      Matt–

      I think you have a good point here. But I think there’s something to be said about early adopters, tipping points, and data standards that I want to say in reply, but I feel that it deserves a little more thought.

      I think you just gave me a topic for my next blog post… Thanks! And please, keep an eye out for it, because I’d appreciate your feedback once I’ve figured out how to articulate my reply…

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