The conference begins, Smithsonian as new Pantheon?

The day started out with a welcome from Secretary Clough and his charge for us to ask the right questions and spark discussion as to how the Smithsonian can become the forefront in the dissemination of knowledge to the public._MG_1633

Dissemination of knowledge was one of the topics that Bran Ferren of Applied Minds, Inc. addressed here in the S. Dillon Ripley Center.

The entire Library of Congress, he said, could fit within 10-20 terabytes—that's maybe 5-6 of some of the high end laptops available on the market, either now or within a few years.

So what's the Library of Congress to be for if we digitize everything (which we must do if the mission/vision is to disseminate information)?

Such were some of the mind-nudging questions and tidbits he threw at the audience of about half Smithsonian staff and half outside participants invited to take a look and engage in the discussion.

The real question was, Ferren suggested, is Smithsonian a fad? Will it be useful in 10 or 1000 years? Will it still be around or will it disappear? Is it CB radio (I think I'm too young to even know what that is…) or will it be fire (you know, with sticks and flames, provides heat and light…)?

He drew a wonderfully clear picture of time versus "something important" (be it technology, cell phone usage, or fraud on Wall Street, he said), depicting the curve of innovation versus the curve of how we respond to it._MG_1641

Here it gets a little long and interesting, filled with digressions to the dome of the Pantheon, Ferren's own inspiration as an innovation in so many areas 1500 years ahead of its time.


But I took a picture of his whiteboard illustration.  It might be clearer if you check out the Web cast. Heh.

He emphasized storytelling. (And being a storyteller myself, I enjoyed that…)

Storytelling is how we remember things and see it.  Thus, this is one of the six things he mentioned for us to focus on.  (Either his numbering or mine is a little flaky, so the 5th or 6th might be confused…)

1. Vision.  This has to be re-interpreted for the 21st century. Diffusion of knowledge in the time of James Smithson is a totally different thing from what is it now. A la wikipedia, youtube, twitter…

2. Trust. It seems Ferren here is talking about a mutual trust. People have to trust the institution doesn't have an ulterior motive. And he also suggested that Smithsonian entrusts and gives away collections that are not virtually inaccessible and locked in dark rooms to the public. Have everyday citizens take care of them.

3. Talent. Attract the best and brightest of people, don't let them all go to Google. (He also mentioned Microsoft.  Personally I say Apple.)

4.  Embrace storytelling. (See above)

5. Crisis of education. Here Ferren talks about how a lot of school children aren't educated enough for engaging in the future.

6. Make it contemporary. Be the enabler for the next generation to disseminate information. Be what the Pantheon was for Ferren to the 9-year-olds with cell phones today.

So that was Ferren's comments in a fairly large nutshell.  Check out his whole lecture on the Web cast we'll be putting up. (Or have already?)

My thoughts, Ferren delivered a very appropriate lecture that sparked a lot of conversations and thoughts. He may seem just a tad idealistic in some of his statements, but shoot for the moon and we get somewhere far, right? And in lot of ways, his allusion to the Pantheon dome was just that, an idealism made into reality over 2000 years ago that continues to awe today.  Maybe it's not too ambitious to want the Smithsonian to come up with innovations that bedazzles the populace in 4000 years.

How exciting. See you in 7009!

So what are your thoughts? Do you see the Smithsonian as a fad or will it be (or is it) the next fire? How do we disseminate knowledge in a meaningful but also practical way? (Ferren does not really acknowledge much about intellectual property rights, copyright infringements, marketing, funding, etc. Though that wasn't really his task.)

4 thoughts on “The conference begins, Smithsonian as new Pantheon?

  1. Hitting on the storytelling thread, I thought his comments on traditional reading and writing were interesting. He even posed the question of whether there will be reading and writing in 250 years. Pictures of objects are how we remember things, Ferren said. It’s not the words.
    The Smithsonian Institution certainly has lots of stories to tell, create, share, and hear.

  2. The Smithsonian needs to listen, hear, and respond to people who want to contribute and/or interact.
    It may be America’s Attic with lots of stories, but a monologue only goes so far. However, a dialogue can go on forever.

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