The Smithsonian Commons

“[The Smithsonian Commons are] the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy – a new part of our digital presence dedicated to stimulating learning, creation and innovation through open access to Smithsonian research, collections and communities…

The Smithsonian Commons will be vast, findable, shareable and free.

–          Michael Edson, the Smithsonian’s Director of Web and New Media Strategy [1]

The foundational theme of the Commons is that innovation occurs due to collaboration, and the goal of the Smithsonian is to create a place for this type of collaboration and content sharing to occur within the institution as well as with the outside world.

To test the workability of this idea, the Smithsonian Commons Prototype was created. It was developed over a 12-week research and development process, and went public in June of this year. The Prototype is a playlist comprised of four stories that demonstrate the potential of the Commons to serve as an interactive guide to a repository of knowledge and collaboration that grows with every user-interaction.

The Smithsonian derives more than half of its funding from federal sources, with the remainder of its budget covered by private endowment. [2] As such, the Commons Prototype was developed to also serve as a tool for fundraising for the Commons project.

As a publicly-funded institution which holds guardianship of an enormous depth and breadth of knowledge and spearheads research across the many disciplines of science, history and art, the Smithsonian must be able to serve the public by making its vast resources available and accessible to everyone. The Prototype demonstrates that the Commons will be created in a collaborative spirit which values the sharing of information. This is underscored in the Prototype’s use of Creative Commons-licensed media, which is credited on the Prototype’s Credits page.

Michael Edson, the Smithsonian’s Director of Web and New Media Strategy spearheaded the Commons Prototype and oversaw an interdisciplinary team of information architects and designers. This team first developed personas of common users so as to be able to determine the future functionalities of the Commons.  These functionalities were categorized by user benefit, business goal, specific/content functions, and general/emotive characteristics.

The team then set out to determine the type of activities that these personas would engage in before, during and after their interaction with the Commons.  They asked the following questions:

What motivates this user?

What is this user seeking?

How do they come in contact with the Commons?

What content or function of the Commons will they use?

What makes their experience with the Commons unique?

How will they benefit?[3]

All of the three to five minute Adobe Flash-based pieces begin with the slogan “Vast, findable, sharable and free,” and each word is encapsulated on the screen, creating a 4-way Venn diagram. This perfectly sums up the four “stories” developed by the Prototype’s team, whose intention with this Prototype is to demonstrate the multi-functional, social and immersive dimensions of the Smithsonian Commons. But what the Prototype really shows is that the value of content in the digital medium goes beyond traditional notions, and recognizes that content, use and collaboration are inseparable.

Story 1

Story 2

Story 3

Story 4

Each story of the Commons Prototype is conceptualized as a meta-narrative of a persona developed by Edson’s team as avatars of the Commons most typical users. These personas also represent the most likely viewers of the Prototype:

1.       The museum visitor planning a trip to Washington, D.C. for Memorial Day

2.       The 4th grade teacher who creates a collection of materials using the Smithsonian Commons to use in her lessons plan.

3.       The Millennial, which tracks the way that the Commons helps its content flow through the Internet

4.       The enthusiast / citizen scientist, an astronomy hobbyist, who uses the Commons to find information, as well as to partake in a community and to create his own content.

It’s interesting to note that these are not your typical video. Rather, the Prototype is more of a tutorial, where action takes place on a web page or a mobile screen and follows the clicks of personas, who interact with the Smithsonian Commons site and community. We are guided by these personas from a Google search page to the Smithsonian Commons site and are familiarized with the various functionalities of the Commons page; we are informed of its numerous social-networking capabilities and benefits, and we’re shown that the Commons’ commitment is to a deep engagement with the user prior to, during and after his or her visit. The emphasis throughout these stories is on the concept of collaboration on content within and without the Smithsonian and as facilitated by the Commons.

But what we’re really presented with in all four stories are a set of pictures within pictures that are being manipulated, copied, shared and re-used. The concept of this type of digital interaction  may create a crisis in the nostalgic critic because it can be viewed to further dematerialize the (already dematerialized) original object. Not only is the digitized photograph transcending a physical death (of the object), but the photograph is also ceasing to exist as such. Bill Brown writes in his essay, “Materiality,” that “one effect of this now-rampant conversion is the dematerialization of the original medium itself; all media may eventually be homogenized with the homogeny of the digital.”[4]

And Walter Benjamin would concur, having argued that while photography frees the object from its material constraints, the latter is then also stripped of its “aura,” which is its unique historical, cultural and material existence.

But taking this stance would be short-sighted, because by re-using, manipulating, and sharing a digital picture of an object, the picture becomes an object and gains aura precisely because it has been manipulated and re-used. New, multi-layered dimensions are gained with each interaction and manipulation by the user.

In the physical sense, the Prototype doesn’t lack for materiality either. It exists on a computer server made of plastics and metals in a physical location. N. Katherine Hayles writes, for example:

An emergent property, materiality depends on how the work mobilizes its resources as a physical artifact as well as on the user’s interactions with the work and the interpretive  strategies she develops – strategies that include physical manipulation as well as conceptual frameworks.[5]

If the user’s interactions are key to the materiality of the work, then the collaborative environment which the Prototype posits imbue it with many webbed layers of materiality that are multiplying with each user’s interactions.

Furthermore, public participation and collaboration gives material to form, if we were to use Vilem Flusser’s terminology. That is, a world of framework (form of the medium) already exists, and the participation in this medium is simply the material which thrusts materiality unto this framework. It is therefore this user collaboration and manipulation which “materializes” the medium.

The Prototype, then, asserts that the collaborative and social aspects of the Commons serve to imbue our life with a newer, more complicated materiality. Its goal is to deepen our interaction with content, to extend our physical and intellectual participation beyond its spatial constraint and across a variety of devices, locations and time.

[1] Edson, Michael. “Smithsonian Commons Prototype.” Smithsonian 2.0. The Smithsonian, 18 June 2010. Web. 12 Sept. 2010. <>.



[4] Bill Brown, “Materiality” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010): 49-63.

[5] N. Katherine Hayles, “Media and Materiality” and “Material Metaphors, Technotexts, and Media-Specific Analysis” In Writing Machines (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002): 8-33.

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