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.