HistoryWired…giving you a trip into the vault!

A trip to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History is inspiring. But, if you’re like me, you look around and wonder: where else do they keep all of American History? Well, like any museum, they have a vast percentage of their collections in storage, protecting them from the elements, including visitors’ eyes. Much like the National Archives, a tiny percentage (less than 5%!) of their collection can ever be seen by us commoners. But the Smithsonian has found a way to let you peer into some of the treasures within the vaults. It’s a website called HistoryWired: a few of our favorite things.

When you visit the site a helpful second screen pops up with directions to help you navigate the site. The site map is divided into ten “squares” that are general topics for the objects. Once you click on one of those main squares, smaller squares representing individual objects appear. The Smithsonian has also built in tools to help you customize your trip through the vaults, even allowing you to rate your interest in the objects as well. There is also text version of the site, including a laundry list of the objects within the site. A couple members of the Smithsonian’s staff mentioned there have been technical difficulties with the site at times. As long as you make sure your computer, tablet, etc. has the proper applications, the site is fantastic.

While the site only has a limited portion of their collections, they point out specifically on the site that most of these objects are not on current display at the museum. Some scholars have asked if putting collections online or creating pseudo-digital museums is the best option for the future. Wouldn’t that cause a sharp drop in visitation to the Smithsonian to see their physical objects? Such a forum for objects, while it allows you rate an object, it doesn’t allow you to engage in a discussion with any museum staff about the object or an exhibit.

The Smithsonian seems to have struck a great balance. They have objects here in Washington people will make the pilgrimage to see. But they also built a platform to showcase their collections to people who don’t have the opportunity to visit Washington. For those who do have that chance, this site entices people to come and visit to see what other treasures they can see not through a screen, but glass instead. After several hours spent wondering through the SI’s collections, I also wondered if highly rated objects could transition to physical display in D.C. Do you think it would benefit curators and staff to consult these rantings when planning temporary exhibits? They have offered quizzes recently such as “Are you smarter than a curator,” maybe this would give people the chance to take a real shot at the job.

5 Replies to “HistoryWired…giving you a trip into the vault!”

  1. The History Wired program raises an interesting question regarding the role of a museum. Is the purpose to exhibit but a few of the most “popular/interesting” physical items at a location that on a tiny proportion of the population can actually visit? Or is it to expose the collection and history of these items to as many people as possible? To me this seems like a logical extension of the traveling exhibit. Artifacts kept in storage don’t do much good.

    With History Wired, as Kerry pointed out, not only does it expose artifacts to far more people, the voting system could potentially be used to determine what types of artifacts could be put on future display based on what the public is interested in learning about, which could drive further interest and attendance at the physical location.

    What makes History Wired especially interesting is the accompanying links on each item page. As Kerry pointed out, without physically visiting the museum you lack the ability to talk to a curator about the artifacts on display, but History Wired makes up for that by placing links that provide a much more in-depth history on a particular artifact than could otherwise be displayed on a placard beside the artifact at the actual museum.

  2. History Wired, as explained in the posts by kerplunk5688 and allenp, seems like a fantastic idea. It is a little unsettling to me that the Smithsonian and other museums only display such a small percentage of their collections. Every time I go to a museum I can’t help but wonder what else the museum has that I am not seeing. I also always think about what items are on display and what items I would like to see on display. One of the best aspects of History Wired is that it creates an interface and as discussion between the museum goers and the staff as to what the public opinion is on what items are on display and what items should be on display. I have been in one of the collections rooms at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and there were shelves, closets, and drawers of countless numbers of artifacts just sitting there only seen usually by museum staff. As a potential public historian, history wired seems like an interesting tool. It makes me wonder that if one day a digital tool like history wired is set up where the public could be entirely in charge of picking artifacts to be seen in a particular museum. That would give new meaning to the term public history.

  3. History Wired sounds like a good idea for people interested in exploring collections that are not displayed in museums. That said, I am not sure that seeing exhibit items on line will ever take the place of seeing them in person. I do like the idea of rating items to determine what the gerneral public would most like to see. But it is important to not just display items that are “popular”. The nicest surprise is to see something in person that looks enitirely different on line and to discover the beauty of art by seeing it in person with one’s own eyes. As widely stated, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  4. Allen,

    I think more museums could take a lead from the SI and instead of lamenting the fact that they could potentially never exhibit all of their collections to find a digital forum they could use to try and bridge that obstacle. Last week with the University of Iowa Libraries Civil War project, it’s pretty clear that the public LOVES to engage with objects that haven’t been able to before.


    I completely agree! HistoryWired is never going to take the place of seeing things with your own eyes. The good news is, I don’t think it’s intended to either. If the SI thought they would lose visitation because of such an initiative, I doubt they would have gone to such lengths to give the public access to their collections.


    I was wondering along the same lines what such a digital museum would mean for public historians? What would our role be in such an institution, without education programs per se, and the public acting as curator?

  5. kerplunk5688,

    Your response to jc1234 poses some very relavent questions. Although the platform is very different – a website versus a physical museum – I don’t think that the objectives change. Education and interpretation will still need to be provided for the visitor, but it’s HOW we present education materials and interpretation that will inevitably need to evolve. With the rise of cyber schools, online education is making its presence known. I think it is up to public historians and their institutions to find the best ways of utilizing education on the web. It can be done (it has been done), but how can we do it better? More effectively?
    That HistoryWired allows the public to be their own curator is equal parts liberating and frustrating. There’s a reason Joe Schmoe (no matter his talents and ability to learn) cannot walk off the street and design an exhibit for the Smithsonian. It takes years of training, education, and experience to be able to put together a successful (key word here) museum exhibition. And that’s the point – an exhibition (a good one anyways) is crafted to deliver a message, highlight certain themes, and tell a story. It’s not the floodgates of history opening up and dumping information on the unsuspecting visitor. Not that such an analogy is fair to HistoryWired! But it raises the question of how much the online visitor’s experience should be sculpted and crafted for them (so that the visit is meaningful), and how much should the visitor be expected to poke around and create meaning for him or herself?

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