Monday, December 19, 2011

A New Paradigm for Institutional History?: Looking at the Smithsonian Archives’ New Website

The Smithsonian is, of course, not the only institution associated with the federal government that maintains an archive about its own history. The National Park Service, for example, has made a substantial investment in documenting the histories of its parks. The Park Service's institutional histories, however, generally exist on a park-by-park basis while the Smithsonian's efforts are more centralized. For the Park Service, this allows for great diversity in its histories. It also means, though, that few people will access the information contained in them. Indeed, most of these histories are for park staff and NPS administrators, not broader public consumption—although some, like Seth Bruggeman’s Here, George Washington Was Born, reach a somewhat larger academic audience when published as books. With the launch of its new website, the Smithsonian Institution Archives points toward a new era of accessibility and engagement for institutional archives.

 When I first visited the Smithsonian Archives almost a decade ago, the reading room and staff offices were located in the Arts and Industries Building (above)--the original home of the United States National Museum. A far cry from its heyday in the late nineteenth century, the building had been emptied of exhibits and collections, and everyone kept telling me that the ceiling was going to collapse. Still, it was a thrill to be working in this historic structure, especially since I was researching a dissertation on the history of cultural exhibitions at the Smithsonian. From a comfort and convenience standpoint, however, it was less than ideal. There was nowhere to get lunch--I usually ended up eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the Hirshhorn sculpture garden--and the reading room was cramped. Consequently, I was pleased when, a few years ago, the archives moved to a newly constructed building a couple of blocks from the Mall. What this shiny, climate-controlled office building lacked in character, it more than made up for in creature comforts.

Now the Smithsonian Archives has a new website to match its new home. Happily, with its digital presence, the archives has not had to sacrifice character for comfort. In fact, the new site does a much better job than the old one of highlighting the services available for researchers and showcasing materials from the collection. Simple, clean, and user-friendly, the website also features the extensive institutional research that archives staff, volunteers, and interns have done. The value of this website, however, may go beyond practical concerns. It just might suggest a new paradigm for institutional history.

Unlike NPS's mostly internally-oriented histories, the Smithsonian's new website is geared towards engaging a broad audience of online users with its content. On the homepage are links to a blog, discussion forum, featured exhibits, and a section called "Today in Smithsonian History." Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which the institution has embraced the interactive web in creating this site. For example, the current front page features a link to the Smithsonian's photostream on Flickr, which displays rare photographs from the Scopes trial. (These photos were discovered by a volunteer researcher at the archives in the records of the Science Service and published in Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century.)

And from a social media perspective, the website is a gold mine, with lots of fascinating things to tweet and post to Facebook. Given the prominent social media logos on the homepage, this was clearly a major topic of discussion in the development process. As someone who is always looking for interesting content to disseminate to my students and others, I appreciate this focus on sharing. The deeper question, however, is whether a website focused on sharing institutional history with a broad audience will be successful. Or, to put it more bluntly, does anybody (other than a relatively small group of public historians and museum professionals) care about institutional history?

Anecdotal evidence points strongly to the fact that people like to go behind the scenes at museums and historic sites--to pull the curtain back on the processes that go on in collections storage facilities, exhibits labs, and staff offices. Therefore, maybe the Smithsonian Archives’ new website will encourage more people to take a peek behind the curtain and begin to think critically about the ways in which history, culture, and science are packaged and presented by institutions such as the Smithsonian. And, maybe they’ll have some fun doing it.

~ Will Walker


  1. Will-

    I can't tell you how excited I am to come across this blog post. I'll definitely pass your kind comments about the Archives' website to our staff as well as our Head of Web, New Media, and Outreach, Effie Kapsalis, who had a major hand in planning the website along with others at the Archives.

    The Smithsonian Institution Archives came at our web redesign from a unique situation within the Smithsonian--unlike the many Smithsonian museums, the Archives doesn't have any public exhibition space, though our reading room is open to the public five days a week. Thus, our website was a very important place for the public to see (and hopefully share!) the content that we create with our collections. It gives me such a thrill to know that people like you are finding the website useful, and are excited to be able to share our content with students and others.

    The question you ask, about whether or not others outside of the history/museum studies fields will care about the content is an important one, and it's one we're thinking about. Admittedly, we know that big part of our engaged audience at the Archives is made up of other archivists, museum professionals, professional researchers/students, and the like. However, we have found that projects like the Flickr Commons have been successful in bringing our "hidden" collections images to a more general public, who are simply history enthusiasts, lovers of photography, or simply folks who've come across our images and have personal information to add (i.e. "This is my grandmother!"). Our blog has also been a very important aspect of making our collections relevant to a more broad audience, and we've worked to tell interesting stories that stand on their own, or relate to current events, outside of an academic/research perspective. Finally, we hope to put in place some web metrics soon that will help us measure where we're succeeding and where there's room for improvement.

    I think many organizations are coming to terms with the idea that "general public" is a hard, and in some ways meaningless, group of people to target in one's outreach. Needless to say, we've had, and continue to have, long and challenging conversations about who the Archives hopes to reach and how we can do that. I think being open to change and experimentation is hugely important.

    We hope to make changes to, and enhance the website as we move forward. And we welcome insights, comments, and suggestions from people such as yourself.

    Thank you again for taking the time to review our website.

    Catherine Shteynberg
    Smithsonian Institution Archives

  2. Catherine-

    Glad to hear that the SI Archives is having some success connecting with a variety of audiences. As a regular user, I agree that there are many gems in the collection, and I look forward to learning more about them from the website. My visits to the archives have always been a joy because of your fabulous staff. I look forward to staying connected both in person and from afar.


  3. Hi Catherine--

    I think your note here: "I think many organizations are coming to terms with the idea that "general public" is a hard, and in some ways meaningless, group of people to target in one's outreach. Needless to say, we've had, and continue to have, long and challenging conversations about who the Archives hopes to reach and how we can do that. I think being open to change and experimentation is hugely important."

    is very insightful. I feel like this is something that public historians struggle with broadly-- is it better to reach more "publics" or to engage more deeply with fewer "publics." Already, the notion of a single "public" does not seem to stand firm, but there something to be said for the alchemy of a more universal appeal. Overall, I think this is something that the Smithsonian manages to maintain, so I'd love to hear more of your insights on that.


  4. Hi Adina-

    I'm sorry I lost this thread in the craziness of the holidays and a little break from work!

    Both the challenge and the advantage of the Smithsonian is that it is the world's largest museum and research complex--each museum or research unit has their own specialty. Clearly, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will be reaching a different audience than the Archives, where I work, or the National Museum of Natural History, even though we all aim to excite the learning in the general public, if you will.

    The Archives are the caretakers of Smithsonian history, which is in turn the history of the US, and thus, the history of science, history of exploration, etc. in this country. While we also aim broad, as we've blogged and interacted on social media, it has been clear that some of our most engaged publics are historians, American history enthusiasts, professional researchers, Wikipedians, Flickr fans, archivists, and other key audiences. Of course, we continue to create blog posts and collections outreach that will reach "general" audiences that are difficult to measure or pin down, but it's nice to be able to identify a few target audiences. I can only speak for the Archives here though--each Smithsonian museum/unit has a different approach.

    One thing that has been helpful for us in our very beginning stages was setting up listening posts (this is a nice overview: Who is talking about you? What are they saying? What are they most interested in? How can you put these things into action for your organization? In my mind, this kind of deeper listening is a great way to start not simply guessing what your organization might be doing, but having evidence that there is deeper interest with particular groups or subject matter.

    That said, we're always experimenting and shifting plans as we learn more. There's no magic bullet, which makes it all the more challenging, but it also keeps us on our toes. As Will notes, so much of our success and the ability to experiment come from the support of a wonderful director and staff, who are excited to write and create.

    I'm always eager to hear about the challenges others face and the solutions that they come up with as well!

    Best wishes to all and happy 2012!

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