Give it Away

The thing I can’t seem to get out of my head from today’s talk with Bran Ferren is an idea he threw out to us, perhaps as an illustration, or perhaps with serious intent:

Give away our collection to the American people. 

The concept is this: using social security numbers or some similar system, give one item from our collection to one citizen. The Smithsonian would retain the stewardship of the item, but that citizen would accept the responsibility for the online dialogue about that object. They would, in a new sense, perhaps a 21st century sense (?), own it.

The reason this idea, this concept seems to fit is that it emphasizes, in a tangible way, the idea that the collection of the Smithsonian is not a private collection, not meant to be held back and reserved for private viewing in a setting we think is appropriate, but rather it is the public collection of the people of the Unites States of America.  Our citizens already own the collection. The facilities they are stored in, the curators that care for and study them, the staff and equipment used to digitize them are paid for with federal dollars.

How can we, in an ethical sense, as well as a legal one, hold back, “be stingy,” as Bran said, with our collection?

We can’t.

8 thoughts on “Give it Away

  1. This particular proposal struck me as genuinely cuckoo when I heard it. Can you imagine the logistics? But then again, I kind of like that about it.
    It is so strange and different that it just might prove deeply compelling–provided nobody tries to fashion it into some kind of marketing/monetization thing.

  2. It’s kind of like adopt-a-highway.
    Although the whole marketing/monetization may not be a bad thing. Money does drive the engine for essentially everything. There is no denying that.
    We could combine Chris Anderson’s suggestion with this. Have the scholar/researcher pay their own way to study/curate the object, take responsibility for not only its physical and academic livelihood, but also its social significance and presence online and elsewhere.

  3. Imagine the secondary market in trading your assigned object for something that resonates. Would it be a counterproductive to allow an auction where someone sells the rights to “adopt” the Hope Diamond?
    Perhaps a better idea might be a first-come, first-served approach which encourages people to browse collections, digitally or otherwise, and pick their favorites before they are randomly assigned.

  4. I received the following email today to our general account. This person wrote in about wanting to help the Smithsonian with digitizing their collection. I think the help is there, if we ask.
    Here is the email:
    I read with great enthusiasm about your new leadership and an attempt to become a larger presence on the www.
    this morning it occurred to me that simply putting your catalogue on line and letting students, access the information for reports would indeed be huge. Then, knowing how gargantuan the collection is, I wondered if you would be interested in volunteers?
    There are several people that have spare time, computer skills, an interest in helping yet no real way to be in D.C. in person. If your data base was accessible to the registered common man, maybe we could help.
    With a recipe, guidelines, and a supervisor on your end to double check the work. I can see the process succeeding at a snails pace, but still, imagine if a geology department at a university helped organize the rock collection for instance, wouldn’t that be beneficial to everybody?
    I had to tell you

  5. Well, I won’t speak for Bran, but I assume that the intent would not be to literally give every single thing away (or, perhaps it’s exactly what he meant :)). But handing over a selection of artifacts to the public for curating is an excellent idea.
    What struck me most, after holding a 4.5 billion piece of our universe, is how much “stuff” SI has that can’t be referenced, is not in use or cataloged, etc. If it’s just sitting there, and it is not serving a research purpose anyway, why not give some of it up?
    Imagine if you gave a piece of that meteorite to a 7th grade science program at a school. How much data and information do you think these amateurs could generate over 2 school years? Oh, and I would CERTAINLY not dismiss their findings as being those of “just children”. With the vastness of the data pool that is the internet, it is a bet I would never place.
    Hey! There’s an idea. Let’s start a program where pieces of this stuff goes on rotation throughout the country at the elementary to high school level, with each piece being handed off every 2 months to another school as a new one comes in. Anyone want to wager as to how much new data you will get at the end of the program?
    My guess is more than you could ever generate yourselves.
    -Chris Melissinos

  6. I like the thought of being able to browse collections and pick favorites. I can see some sort of “blogosphere” that has icons for most of the SI collections. And icon meaning an image of one piece out of the collection (a spoon from Julia Child’s Kitchen; a arrow from the Zulu tribe, a jade carving from the 17th century in the Anthropology collection…lots of stuff to choose from of course) You pick the icon as your…thing. Your icon can be featured on your blog – or as a signature on your emails – whatever. You can chat about it with other icon-owners on some chatroom about…stuff.
    Once you have it – you can donate it back and pick something else. If you get creative – many well-knowns (ie. Richard Kurin, Sec’y Clough) could feature their own icon each month in the Torch, writing a piece about why its special to them.
    It could be what a ringtone is to a phone: a fashionable way of expression – just not as obnoxious and moronic.
    Anyone could feature there thing wherever and it be all their own thing.

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