Creating a Digital Smithsonian

Smithsonian employees attend the 2010 Smithsonian Digitization Fair. Photograph by Michael Barnes. For two days in mid-September, Smithsonian Institution employees gathered for a digitization fair to share ideas and hear about some neat projects. Even those who work here are impressed by research initiatives and everyday work being conducted by our colleagues. The Smithsonian is home to 137 million objects, 100,000 cubic feet of archival material, and 1.8 million library volumes. Digitization efforts are just one way we can deliver these valuable resources to numerous audiences. At the Smithsonian, digitization means both the conversion of an item such as a photographic print that is scanned and saved to a digital format or the creation of a born-digital item such as a word-processing document. The last digitization fair was held in 2006, and the Smithsonian has come a long way in its digitization efforts, including establishing a formal digitization strategic plan; forming working groups to deal with retention, repositories, counting, and standards; and creating a central digitization program office. Smithsonian Secretary Dr. Wayne Clough kicked off the fair by stating this is an exciting time but did urge the attendees to think about what technology will be like in five to ten years from now. Some highlights from the fair included tools staff can use for showcasing images in different ways on their websites (see The Train from Tupelo from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; work being done for creating and applying metadata (data about data) recommendations across the Institution; projects featuring the digitization of video and audio oral history collections; and digitization of full sheets of certified stamps. Adam Metallo, left, of the Office of the Chief Information Officer and Vincent Rossi of the Office o In particular, there was lots of buzz over some of the 3D digitization projects being done at the Smithsonian. Specialized printers, cameras, and other equipment can create 3D images, as well as physical replicas of objects.

  • Check out the video of this cool blue beetle (click to see video on Facebook) from the National Museum of Natural History’s entomology collection, which is part of 3D imaging research being done by the Office of Exhibits Central:


The National Museum of Natural History's Human Origins website, with an interactive 3D collection.

  • 3D models of prehistoric tools, by Smithsonian Exhibits Central. The Office of Exhibits Central also talked about items they have been able to CT or laser scan noninvasively and “print” as 3D objects. By using the information from the digital scans, a 3D printer with a data cartridge filled with powder is able to create physical objects such as skulls, hands, prehistoric tools, and other items. What makes this exciting is one can actually handle the 3D print and still get the full experience as if touching the real item.

As the presenter from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I discussed what we do with the born-digital materials in our collections. Not only do we have born-digital images and text documents, but we have video, audio, websites, drawings, and email collections, that we deal with day-to-day in the archives, as we’ve written about in older blog posts. As the keeper of the Smithsonian’s institutional memory, our role is to ensure that we consider preservation, conditions, storage, hardware, and software for these digital materials. It was rewarding to show and play for attendees collections items that included a video of the planning of National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a music clip of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra performing, and to talk about our Smithsonian website archiving efforts. The next fair is in a few years, and it will be exciting to see how the Smithsonian integrates these technologies into exhibitions and behind-the-scenes work, and how new technologies change our work over the coming years.

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.