E. Recommendations to Increase the Museum's ReachThrough Digitization and Use of the Web
The Commission was charged to meet only a limited number of times. In its limited time, the Commission was able to identify more issues than it was able to address responsibly. The largest of the under-addressed issues involves the implications of new technology -- especially digital electronic communication -- for NMAH's role and reach.
At one level, the issue is straightforward. Millions of people visit the Museum in Washington. Many, many millions more people might benefit from exposure to the Museum's collections and programs -- but are unable to visit Washington. The rapid advances in digitization and electronic communication have made it technologically possible to use the web (and other media) to reach distant audiences at low cost (or no cost) to the "virtual visitors." Collections can be digitally photographed, stored, and retrieved. So, too, can exhibits. And, somewhat more ambitiously, interesting educational programs can be developed that draw upon NMAH collections and exhibits.
Thus, these questions naturally arise:
The Commission would answer all three of these questions, "Yes." The Museum's leadership would, also. It would note that exhibits and collections are now being digitally stored, and that initiatives have been taken in web-based communication. These are important first steps. But the reality is that the allocation of NMAH resources to digital technology and programming is insignificant relative to other NMAH activities (a fraction of one percent). And, perhaps more importantly, it is low relative to the opportunities that digital technology would seem to present. That much is clear to the Commission.
But exactly what should be done is not. The issues go beyond questions of resource allocation. They include questions that are important and difficult, such as the following:
The Commission would have required more time (and a broader base of expertise) to address such questions with the depth of attention they deserve, and to develop specific recommendations in which it could have confidence. Given its limited tenure, however, the Commission offers only this one general recommendation:
RECOMMENDATION (15) re: DIGITIZATION AND REACH
AFTER SOLICITING ADVICE FROM APPROPRIATE EXTERNAL EXPERTS, NMAH SHOULD RADICALLY INCREASE INVESTMENT TO BRING ITS COLLECTIONS AND PROGRAMMING TO THE VAST AUDIENCE IT MIGHT REACH THROUGH DIGITAL ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION.