Profile of a Cultural Heritage Institution: The Smithsonian

Why the Smithsonian?

This might be a “duh” question, but here are my reasons for starting with the Smithsonian: it played such a large role in my childhood (I still remember the many, many school trips to the Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Natural History, and the Air and Space Museum, among others), but more importantly it is the world’s largest museum and research complex.

The Smithsonian comprises 19 museums and galleries, the national zoological park, and 9 research facilities. It also includes the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. It publishes two magazines, Smithsonian and Air & Space (Wikipedia, 2012).

The Basics

Mission: The increase and diffusion of knowledge

Vision: Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world.

Values: Discovery, Creativity, Excellence, Diversity, Integrity, and Service.

Priorities: Four Grand Challenges; Broadening access (through digitization, next-generation technologies, and the improvement of the visitor experience); Revitalizing education; Crossing boundaries and increasing interdisciplinary collaboration; Strengthening collections; Organizational excellence; Measuring performance.

The History

The Smithsonian has been around for a long time. Some facts about its founding and establishment:

  • Founded by James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist. Originator of the current Smithsonian mission statement.
  • 6 years after his death, President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress, which accepted in 1836.
  • Act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk on 1846 established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.
  • Find out more at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries online exhibit here.

The Programming (a sample)

  • Museum and gallery exhibitions (on American Indian cultures and art; American art, history, biography, objects such as the conestoga wagon)
  • Events such as the Folklife Festival, symposiums, lectures, readings, “meet the artists”; in categories such as “After Five,” “Celebrations,” “Culinary Arts,” “Demonstrations,” “Films,” “Gallery Talks and Tours,” “Lectures and Discussions,” “Performances,” “Workshops”
  • Online exhibitions
  • Webinars and Webcasts
  • Kids and Families programming

The Online Offerings (a sample)

  • Smithsonian Snapshots (“A weekly peek into the Smithsonian’s collections, one object at a time”)
  • Online exhibitions
  • Encyclopedia Smithsonian

The Research Projects (a sample)

The Smithsonian fosters research in a variety of areas. Today (25 October 2012) they announced the launch of a Global Marine Biodiversity Project “to study coastal marine biodiversity and ecosystems around the globe.” The goal of the project is “to monitor the oceans’ coastal ecosystems over a long period of time” (St. Thomas, 2012). Read more here.

The Museum Conservation Institute is conducting interdisciplinary research into conservation techniques, procedures, and factors. “Projects examine the preservation-related properties and the processes and parameters of their deterioration, extract historical information from the technical record of artifacts, and develop and improve conservation treatment technology” (Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, n.d.).

The Impact of Changes in Technology and Informatics

Obviously, internet and web technology have extended the reach of the Smithsonian Institution to communities, groups, and populations beyond its local environment, through the implementation not only of the very extensive website, which has information on local programming, museum exhibitions, research, etc, but also through the use of online exhibitions, the inclusion of webinars and webcasts in programming, and the addition of the “Snapshots,” which bring pieces of the Smithsonian’s vast collection online, and thus to a wider audience. Digitization and implementation of cutting-edge technologies play key roles in this.

The internet has also in some cases and to some extent mediated the ubiquitous tug-of-war between preservation and access. With digitized collections and online exhibitions, the Smithsonian is able to provide access to objects for longer periods of time (digitization does not require the long-term exposure of objects to light, heat, humidity, insects, rodents, and other pests, which is common with the physical exhibition of objects). Additionally, some objects that may be prohibited from physical exhibition may be digitized and viewed/accessed online.

Soon, the update of the website to include linked open data will provide online links to contextual data, facilitating research, understanding, collaboration, and investigation. See a brief introduction to linked open data here.

The Summary

The Smithsonian Institution combines museums, libraries, archives, galleries, research centers and projects, public programming, and online programming and content.

It is an example of a converged institution, striving to break down the barriers between different collections locations and management policies and practices and providing its audience with “a holistic view of all collections regardless of where they are housed or how they are managed” (OCLC, 2012).

The Smithsonian’s priorities reflect the impact that changing technologies and informatics have had on cultural heritage institutions, broadening access by researching and implementing next-generation technologies and by digitizing collections. This is demonstrated in the initiative to update the website and to use linked open data to provide even more comprehensive access to its collections. It has the resources to provide rich experiences for remote audiences through its online exhibitions, webinars, webcasts, and other online programming.

Up Next:

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia!


Europeana. (2012). Linked open data – what is it? Retrieved on 14 October from

OCLC. (2012). Library, archive, and museum convergence. Retrieved on 25 October from

Smithsonian. (2012). Events. Retrieved on 25 October from

Smithsonian. (2011). Mission and vision. Retrieved on 25 October from

Smithsonian. (2012). Our history. Retrieved on 25 October from

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. (1998). From Smithson to Smithsonian: The birth of an institution. (online exhibit). Retrieved on 25 October from

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. (n.d.). Conservation research. Retrieved on 25 October 2012 from

St. Thomas, Linda. (2012). Smithsonian launches global marine biodiversity project with $10 million donation. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on 25 October 2012 from

Wikipedia. (2012). Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on 25 October from


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