The Smithsonian: How a 170-year-old Museum Leverages Technology

Thinking about the impact of digitization on our economy and society at large the first companies that come to mind are technology companies Uber or Facebook, IT companies like IBM, payment system providers or wearable technology manufacturers. Museums and libraries are likely to feature far down that list.

Museums form an integral part in our society, our education and in the communication and advancement of our culture and community. A recent study by the Institute of Museum and Library Services shows that there are more museums in the United States than McDonalds restaurants and Starbucks stores combined1.

Digital innovation and increasing consumption of knowledge via the internet pose a threat to traditional institutions of learning like museums, libraries and schools. At the same time, however, technology can act as a great equalizer by providing opportunity for increased access to art and culture. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, has taken a stance to support the latter view and has implemented a Digitization Program to embrace technology as a vehicle to bring culture to a wider public audience and to advance their own research.

The Smithsonian’s digital effort can be categorised broadly into three categories using the McKinsey digitization index2 framework: investment in digital assets (hardware, software, data, IT services), digital usage to engage with customers and suppliers in a digital way and lastly, a digitally enabled workforce that uses technology to drive performance and productivity.

greekslave_3dscan_0   Laser Scanning the “Greek Slave”

Firstly, to build its digital asset base, the Smithsonian invested in laser scanning technology to start a large scale, mass digitization of its collection to make it accessible online to the public. These artefacts and documents include 138 million objects and specimens, 157 thousand cubic feet of archive materials, and 2 million library volumes, all of which are currently housed in 41 different facilities3. Laser scanned images allow global users to discover the artefacts in 2D or 3D online, process the data and even print their own 3D models. The museum itself is using 3D printing technology to enhance its collection, for example by printing an interactive and accessible 3D version of the Apollo11 command module Columbia, which due to preservation reasons is typically exhibited behind glass.

apollo  Robotic arm capturing Command Module Columbia

With less than 1% of museum collections on display at any time, digitization brings items to life that would otherwise never be viewed by the public. Capturing artefacts like sculptures or ancient jewelry in 3D also has advantages from a preservation point of view for repair or restoration. Similarly, researchers are able to bring back 3D data on species they discover on expeditions without having to remove them from their natural habitat.

The Smithsonian also invested heavily in digital interaction with its visitors to increase engagement and experiential learning, especially among younger visitors. The museum developed a Virtual Reality app called “Skin & Bones4”, through which viewers can experience the 1881 established Bone Hall, a comparative anatomy exhibit, in a completely different and new way. Users of the app can see skeletons come to life and interact with them through their iPhones or iPads.

Lastly, the Smithsonian is working hard to empower their workforce with technology to increase productivity and enhance creativity. The researchers who work for the museum have started crowd-sourcing parts of their research by opening up questions for public interpretation and debate. The museum established a digital volunteering website, where members of the public can help curate exhibitions by signing up to perform tasks, such as transcription of handwritten articles.

The Smithsonian is a thought leader among museums and national libraries in adapting a traditional business to trends and behaviors of the Digital Age. To further the impact, the Smithsonian Institute could consider a “competitor” analysis. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, has a very progressive approach to copyright. It has defined all its works as Creative Commons “CC0” status5 and is thereby encouraging designers and artists to adapt and commercialize the existing works further. Arguments can be presented both in favor and against this approach, but it highlights a clear shift in the art world towards a sharing economy approach driven by digitization.

Museums, libraries and schools are increasingly aware of the need to adapt business and operating models to reflect consumers’ consumption of media and art through technological interfaces. There is a huge risk for institutions to perform large scale investments into flashy installations, which in the long run are unsustainable and neither contribute to the preservation of objects nor to the education of the general public. Rigor has to be exercised when thinking about how to approach a digitization program. Part of the solution for museums therefore could be to partner with young institutions in the art world and startups like “Cuseum” for example, which is a low cost museum engagement platform that can be tailored to different museums. Such partnerships could further help established organizations stay close to digital trends.

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1 Institute Of Museum and Library Services:

2 McKinsey Global Institute Research: “Digital America – a tale of the haves and have mores” by James Manyika, Sree Ramaswamy, et al.

3The Smithsonian Institution Digitization Program Office:

4 Skin and Bones:

5 Creative Commons CC0: “The person who associated a work with this deed has dedicated the work to the public domain by waiving all of his or her rights to the work worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.”


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Student comments on The Smithsonian: How a 170-year-old Museum Leverages Technology

  1. I’ve visited the Smithsonian several times, but have never really stopped to consider it’s targeted approach to digitization until now! Museums present an interesting problem: defined as keepers of history, they are being forced to constantly adapt to modern technology in order to stay relevant. The Smithsonian is straddling the line between preserving history and foraying into the future in a very effective manner. I love the idea of digitizing collections that are not on display in order to share them with the rest of the world. These digital models will also be integral for preservation measures–a lasting record of important pieces of artwork. I wonder if the Smithsonian could use its digital technology and tech-savvy team to expand its social media presence as an additional lever to generate excitement about the museum. It could also partner with schools or promote local events in order to increase its online presence. I also like your idea of learning from other museums; maybe setting up a collaborative sharing platform between museums globally would encourage innovation and idea sharing. Smaller, less advanced museums could benefit from learning about the strategies that major players like the Smithsonian are employing to reach a wider audience.

  2. What a great topic, Estelle. Over the last decade, I have loved observing how museums are using digital technologies to enhance their visitor experiences and facilitate the study of great works of art and science.

    The Smithsonian in particular deserves great praise for its use of blogs and social channels to support its mission to educate and inspire. The Smithsonian invested significant dollars in recruiting talented writers to produce fascinating, shareable, and entertaining content for its website. Often the writers would connect themes from the Institution to pop culture or news to demonstrate how museums are key to connecting seemingly unrelated areas of interest. My particular favorite was a 24-post blog series about how the cartoon “The Jetsons” influenced how we have innovated architecture, fashion, and transportation in the years since:

    Further, the Smithsonian’s investment in digital scanning and archiving not only increases the public’s access to great works, it also acts as a sort of insurance that these works will be remembered and preserved even if they are for some reason destroyed or misplaced. While no simulation can quite capture the magic of seeing Abe Lincoln’s actual hat in-person, a record of its dimensions, fabric, color, and feel still has enormous historical value for future generations.

  3. This is a fascinating post, Estelle. Visiting galleries and museums is one of my favourite pastimes both at home and when travelling. I’ve been to several of the Smithsonian museums and they truly are a special experience. I agree with Ariana and Kiernan, it’s so great that digital technology can open the vast collections of these museums, most of which would otherwise be locked away, to the public. Also, I think introducing the right technology into the museum experience could be an incredibly powerful learning mechanism. With that said, I think there is a fine line that museums must navigate as they introduce new technologies. My concern is that as technology becomes ubiquitous, people will be discouraged from visiting museums in-person as they may feel they have already experienced everything online. As you mentioned, museums and galleries are an intrinsic part of our society and I believe it is critical that future generations experience them first-hand and in a manner that isn’t completely overwhelmed by technology and gadgets. In many ways, the beauty of visiting museums and galleries is that they disconnect us from day-to-day life and transport us to another place or time. If technology doesn’t compromise but complements this experience, I am excited by its potential.

  4. Great article, Estelle and what a an important topic! When we think long-term… like really long term, it is the institutions like the Smithsonian that are carrying forward to collective history of human achievements and, not less significantly, human flaws. It is so reassuring to learn form your article that the Smithsonian is on the cutting edge of digital innovation, because it means that our future generations will have even faster and richer access to what will then be even bigger collection of human history artifact. It is an important area of investment and my hope is that we will continue to implement innovation in museums.

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