Smithsonian Commons Prototype



Image: screen grab from Smithsonian Commons Prototype Story 2: Visitor

The Smithsonian Commons Prototype is now public. Check it out and help us move forward by leaving us a comment on this blog or with the simple vote and comment form.[Commenting is closed, but you can see all the comments we received via our wiki. Thanks!]

The Smithsonian Institution  Strategic Plan (.pdf) describes four grand challenges:

  • unlocking the mysteries of the universe
  • understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet
  • valuing world cultures
  • understanding the American experience

This is urgent and important work. Difficult work! And work that requires us to find new ways to collaborate, form partnerships, engage with the public, and develop our global network of ideas, resources, and expertise. This job requires something new.

Thus, the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy is the creation of the Smithsonian Commons—a new part of our digital presence dedicated to stimulating learning, creation, and innovation through open access to Smithsonian research, collections and communities.

This project is just starting, and depending on who you are and how much you follow digital culture, the idea of a digital commons, let alone an institutional strategy based on building one, can be hard to grasp. What is this commons? What will it look like and do? How will it help us achieve our goals? What needs to change in order to do this?

To understand and address these questions we decided to build a prototype in the form of four animated vignettes—four stories to show the attributes and benefits of the Smithsonian Commons as seen through the eyes of our users. We built the prototype through a rapid research-and-development process this winter, and in the months since then I’ve been meeting with colleagues inside and outside the Institution to understand what the Smithsonian Commons means to people and how to move it forward.

We think there are four things that, together, will make the Smithsonian Commons a unique and powerful tool. The Smithsonian Commons will be vast, findable, shareable, and free.


Anyone in the world can have access to the whole Smithsonian, including access to deep collections and the vitality, curiosity, and creativity of our staff, visitors, partners, and our extended global community. The Smithsonian is shown at the center of an amazing network of ideas, collections, and people.


Vastness and findability go hand-in-hand. The vastness of the Smithsonian can be discovered because search, navigation, and overall user experience design enables people to find the content they’re interested in, in the ways they expect to find it, including through recommendations and comments by staff and visitors, external search sites, and social networks.


Sharing is the foundation of collaboration and learning. The Smithsonian’s impact can be greatly amplified if what we have and what we do is easy to share. The Smithsonian Commons will encourage use and re-use for work and pleasure, in social networks, on mobile devices, and in the classroom, workshop, and laboratory.


The Smithsonian is built on the idea that the tools of discovery and knowledge creation should be available to all. The Smithsonian Commons will be built on the premise that free, high-quality resources will spread farther and create more opportunities for discovery and creation than those that are restricted by unnecessary fees and licenses. Free does not have to mean unprofitable: a popular and thriving Smithsonian Commons, built with revenue-generation in mind, will open up new business opportunities and drive increased traffic to our core e-commerce and membership offerings.

From the feedback we’ve gotten so far, “vast, findable, shareable, and free” seems to resonate with people’s expectations of the Smithsonian in the digital age. The commons concept also seems to successfully embody many of the goals and values articulated in the Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy:

  • the importance of search, findability, and community engagement across the Institution’s websites
  • the enormous thirst for the Smithsonian’s trusted content and expertise
  • the benefits to be gained by balancing expert opinion with crowdsourcing and user generated content
  • the potential of the Smithsonian as a platform for knowledge creation, invention, and learning

At this point in the process we would love to get more feedback from outside the Institution to validate or adjust our assumptions, figure out what we’ve missed, and learn what to emphasize. Do you want to see the Smithsonian build a commons? What would you want to find there? What should we do first? How can the Smithsonian Commons help you succeed in your work, for pleasure, or in your lifelong learning journey?

Do you like the Smithsonian Commons concept?

Check out the Smithsonian Commons Prototype and make a comment on this blog post or with the simple vote and comment form[Commenting is closed, but you can see all the comments we received via our wiki. Thanks!]


Related links:

12 thoughts on “Smithsonian Commons Prototype

  1. re: your comment, Tad, about openness – – you’ve done us a great service by opening a public conversation about what I believe is the single most important issue facing the institution today. The Smithsonian Commons Prototype was in many ways conceived to advance exactly this discussion by providing an accessible storyline to associate with the sometimes challenging and disruptive topics of copyright, intellectual property policy, and mission.
    Would you be willing to help me write a script for a fifth prototype story—one that addresses the kind of openness you want? I’ll produce it! The wiki is there waiting for us…
    I’ve posted a full reply to your blog post at

  2. This is very exciting as I teach both Emerging Media and Usability and Interaction in the Computer Science Department. I want my students to do a thorough review and critique and come up with activities and exercises.

  3. This is great work and I’m very excited with the direction you’re going. I love the promise of free and open data, but of course there may be all kinds of copyright concerns here. What would be a great start is to see you move toward publishing your metadata under CC-0 or CC-BY licenses. Offering machine readable (i.e. RDF), or at least human sortable (i.e. CSV), metadata, including image URLs, thumbnails, collection title, etc will go a long way toward encouraging all kinds of new discovery!

  4. This concept will help the SI engage with the public in great, new ways and help to restore its place in the public consciousness as a major science and research entity, not simply “the nation’s attic.”
    As part of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering program, we are hoping that our citizens become more engaged in science, engineering, mathematics and technology so that 1. our young people go into these fields and solve the challenges of the next century and 2. our adults become more knowledgeable voters and policy discussants. We applaud and support your efforts in this endeavor!

  5. I watched all four videos for Smithsonian Commons. This is a good idea and when combined with the curiosity of an open mind it could turn out to be something great in the near future.
    The definitions you use are interesting, but here’s my own take on them:
    VAST: We have stuff we didn’t even know was stored away! There’s a future degree thesis in almost every box!
    FINDABLE: Oh sure, now that we digitized everything, don’t tell us you CAN’T find something. Yes, we digitized the icky things, but we wore gloves.
    SHAREABLE: We won’t sue you for passing along free information. We will make a funny face if you put our content on a Creationist or Flat Earth Society webpage.
    FREE: Yes, admission is free and there are cool things here. There are new exhibits all of the time. Plus, remember how you didn’t get to push all of the buttons the last time you were here, right? Well, there are more buttons and other things to do. Have you put an image of your face through the “MEanderthal” application? (Yeah, it made our friends laugh too!)
    SAFE: Yes, there is no porn, Viagra spam, or inappropriate adult content on our sites. But remember, while in our museums you still can’t let the kids run around and scream.

  6. Nathan, thank you for the vocal public support! The Grand Challenges for Engineering program looks really compelling – – we should talk!
    Lexi, you clearly have a gift for this. Thank you for getting in the spirit, and for making me laugh laugh laugh 😉
    LookbackMaps, thanks for spending time with me In The Real World to teach me about portable data. I’m excited by what you’re doing!

  7. I wonder if anyone else has found that the Smithsonian (specifically the SAAA) seems overly concerned with the copyright status of personal papers donated to them which bear no evidence of copyright.
    On another level I agree that RDF or CSV metadata would be very helpful in cataloging what was found and is of interest (as would a standard citation style for the Smithsonian Commons)

  8. Jerome,
    I understand your perspective that AAA is overly concerned. You are probably referring to the intense watermark? An archives has to perform a balancing act since the majority of documents we hold cannot fall into the “no known copyright category.” Our current approach requires that we apply the same watermark regardless of the status. We hope it is better than drastically cutting back on what we put online. Hopefully soon we’ll be able to both tone it down and add a layer of granularity to the application. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. Sorry, I think I’m missing something. The “Visitor” video said this was public, but I don’t see how a person can actually try out the things demonstrated in the video.

  10. Hi Brundage – – no worries, a couple of people have been confused by this. The Smithsonian Commons doesn’t exist yet. As we say on the prototype home page and the related blog post, the videos are a prototype. They are designed to help us understand and discuss the attributes of the Smithsonian Commons as it would be seen through the eyes of our users – – before we built it. The process of prototyping and the feedback and comments we’re getting are helping us figure out how to put this project together. I hope this helps clear things up!

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