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