Website | Digitising the Smithsonian
The scale of the Smithsonian’s collection is pretty mindblowing, with 155 million objects and artefacts across 19 sites. The fact that the Smithsonian, based in Washington DC, is trying to digitise the entire collection is almost beyond imagination.
I was interested in how on earth it was going to do that, but soon I realised that it didn’t yet have a fully formed answer to that itself.
The organisation can, however, tell you why they are doing it – the answer to which (and the projects that the digitisation work is inspiring) makes you care much less about the “how”.
The Smithsonian hopes that digitising its collection will help it achieve its organisational mission of “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”. Most people on the planet will never get to see the Smithsonian’s collection in real life, so by making it available digitally, the institution will, of course, go some way to achieving its mission.
The work to create 3D digital assets provides tangible and exciting examples of how users can begin to expand their knowledge and their minds by having digital access to some of the Smithsonian’s most treasured objects.
The recent release of a 3D scan of the Apollo 11 Command Module means that users around the world can 3D print their own version, or view it through virtual-reality goggles.
I love the idea of people (schoolchildren in particular) having the opportunity to explore such an iconic object in even more detail than they could if they were standing in front of it in Washington DC.
Inside the museum, curatorial staff are also expanding their knowledge by being able to see parts of the inside of the Apollo 11 Command Module they have never previously viewed.
During the scanning, curators discovered several instances of “astronaut graffiti” not previously known to the museum. Seeing such details and studying the text have enhanced curators’ understanding of how the missions were conducted. This, in turn, can only enhance their ability to tell us more detailed stories about the things that truly inspire us.
Digital learning | Toddlers Go Digital
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has introduced hands-on sessions at which digital tools are employed to help very young children explore and create art.
Many museums have well-established programmes of using digital tools to help audiences engage with their collections – websites, trails, apps, games, and virtual and augmented reality, to name a few. It’s rare, however, to find any of these tools and approaches that have a museum’s very young audience (under-fives) in mind.
The education team at the Fitzwilliam Museum has been using a completely different set of digital tools, alongside more traditional resources, to introduce babies and pre-schoolers to the world of digital art making, offering new ways for visiting families with very young children to respond to their collections.
Using hands-on activities such as making electrical circuits with conductive play-dough, creating tiny animations and exploring materials with projectors, the team has created an environment in which families could feel confident and learn something new.
The digital tools that we often engage in most readily are both immersive and playful. With flashy apps and AR experiences often financially out of the reach of many museums, perhaps we should join the Fitzwilliam toddlers and get hands on in a simpler, but equally as engaging, digital playground.
Digital learning | Museum in a Box
Museum in a Box is an innovative take on a museum handling collection. In a world full of digital bells and whistles, its simplicity is compelling. Made from plywood or acrylic, the box can be sent out anywhere in the world alongside a collection of objects – items such as 3D print-outs, postcards, documents and maps – that users can pick up and touch. These objects can be “booped” (held over a reader) and the users can hear the story of each object in the box.
Museum in a Box is produced by a London-based education technology company with a mission to help museums increase access to their collections and bring cultural education into hard-to-reach places. Four years on from their first prototype, it has developed boxes with an impressive list of UK and international museums.
Most recently, a project with the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool has produced a collection that explores transatlantic slavery and its contemporary significance. The collection includes reproductions of objects that would have been touched by African slaves, street signs connecting Liverpool to the slave trade, and contemporary art pieces.
My kids, who have recently studied aspects of the slave trade, but who live a remote coastal existence 300 miles away from Liverpool, would, I am sure, relish a Museum in a Box appearing in their classroom. The tech element – Raspberry Pi’s, Near-Field-Communication readers, amps and the like, give this box enough of the tech appeal for its generation of digital natives, while at the same time, providing hands-on access to a collection they are unlikely to ever visit.