Michael Edson (Smithsonian)

Three urgent topics for all museums: scope, scale and speed.

[Background - Video 1 of 4]

I come from a liberal arts background, so you don't specialize in anything, you learn about everything with the hope that sometime later in your life you'll figure out how the pieces fit together. And I trained in painting and printmaking and was a starving artist. My first job out of college was making sandwiches in a delicatessen in Seattle for two dollars and thirty cents an hour. And I learned to work in in an art gallery hanging exhibitions and doing framing.

I came to the back to Washington DC with my wife in the 1990 and got a job at the Smithsonian Asian art museums, cleaning Plexiglas, ten dollars a case, and that was a great job. I got to be around art and creative people and curator's all day long, every day, and gradually that job turned into more steady employment, and I started doing lighting design and lighting installation and during... while I was lighting an exhibition about ancient Japan, I was on a ladder screwing in a light bulb, and a guest curator was training docents - - was training educators - -  and the guest curator stood in front of an artifact for 45 minutes and lectured about the population "the peopling" - -  settling of the Japanese archipelago.

The label she was pointing to was a hundred words long and she lectured for 45 minutes and I was spellbound. And it occurred to me then in the early 1990s that there had to be a way to get that vitality, and that...the skill of that teaching and the excitement of that information to the public.

When she left, and educators went away nobody in the public would have any idea that that excitement was there. Gradually I began asking for and been given a little bit of time every week to learn about CD-ROMs and scanning Photoshop and databases, and I started like a true liberal arts student supposed to do - -  like an independent study program…

Slowly I was asked to found, create, a new department for those museums for technology and new media. In Around 2003 I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to work on their reopening. They were in the middle of a six-year, 300 million dollar reopening project. And then in 2008 the I came to work for The Smithsonian's Chief Information Officer as the director of web strategy for the institution. And so since 2008 I haven't had any operational responsibility - -  I've been just working on trying to understand what the hell is going on in the world and how it relates to the mission of museums and libraries and archives. 

Every museum is different. Every organization is different. At the Smithsonian we have responsibility...There are 28 museums and research centers at the Smithsonian, and a zoo. 6,000 employees, 137  million physical objects. We fly satellites for NASA in outer space, we have people in Panama at the Tropical Research Institute. We're active in more than 100 countries. It's a very distributed organization. 

My responsibility is to... sort of three parts. The first part is to try and understand where the world is headed, as a strategist, and how the mission at the Smithsonian, which is the increase and diffusion of knowledge, can be  advanced, can be coupled to where... how the world is using technology, changes in media, changes in social behavior, to do a better job, of our job. So about a third of my time and a third of my responsibility is understanding that. And you know that story is changing every day. Every single day. Another third my job is providing direct support to the web and new media practitioners at the Smithsonian. The team - - and that that's an amazing network, very skilled, now very expert - - practitioners, social media practitioners, developers, web director’s curator's, bloggers… 

When I started in this job in 2008 it was a close internal team, now that Twitter has taken off and social media has taken off, less of my job needs to be about knitting that team together because they're really truly part of a global network of experts across all disciplines, inside and outside of museums, business, you’re part of that, very much so. And then about a third is to keep the ideas and focus of the institution behind the strategic direction set by the Secretary - - so to try to pull the pieces together.

And I should note that I don't have any direct decision authority at the Smithsonian - -  I don't have a big budget, a staff - -  I'm very different than - - you've talked Peter Gorgels from Rijksmuseum and John Stack, who really direct web offices. I'm more of a pure strategy person, and I try and support the work of others.

[Urgency  - Video 2 of 4]

I think we're at an interesting moment now. Five years ago, sometimes three years ago, we were making guesses about what would work with the Internet. What would work with new media. Where the world was headed. But there was a lot of speculation and a lot of skepticism.

I remember the early meetings when we talked about Wikipedia as a legitimate competitor to our ancient trusted institutions. That was a real debate, and there was a lot of dismissal - - how can a bunch of people working on a wiki ever create anything useful? That debate is over now. There was debate and skepticism that mobile would be a factor in people's daily lives. That debate is over now. There was a debate that citizens, individuals, working independently without central coordination, could do meaningful work in society. The last time I checked, the Zooniverse crowdsourcing website had over it 800,000 active participants. TED has had 1 billion video views. If I look at any big problem in the world I can see where citizens working in extraordinary new ways using the simple tools at the Internet can accomplish that work.

So the moment we're in now is... There are two bets our colleagues need to place: How can we take advantage of the things - - the aspects digital culture that are rock solid and bankable now - - basic execution of digital fundamentals, and then, how, when, with what urgency... can we transition the way we think about our jobs from what I've been calling the broadcast model, where we the experts, we decide what problems will be solved, we decide how to solve them, we build the solutions, and we deliver them to a passive audience - - how and when will we transition from that model to the model where citizens really are our co-creators. That's the challenge. And it's not about cosmetic differences, it's not about having a blog, or having Twitter: its fundamentaly about how to scale are impact in society, using the right tools to get our job done now, and I think that impact be dramatically stronger than it's ever been.

This is a moment in our place on earth, as a species, when we really need learning institutions and memory institutions to do an excellent job. An absolutely breathtaking job, and its no longer acceptable to me to only prosecute that mission by hanging pictures on walls, inviting people into buildings - - that's okay, we still need to do that, but we also need to do the other thing - - Not a year from now not three years from now... Now.

So those are very lofty ideas. Where it becomes very practical is how you insert these big ideas into the daily work of museums.

So think of the time line of a typical museum project. Some group of individuals gets an idea in their head - - "we're going to do an exhibition we're going to do a publication, we're going to do an educational program..." and when that idea crystallizes, our institutions and the individuals in them carry into that moment their training and their biases about what success looks like and what is possible, and what I'm asking - - what all of us are trying to ask our colleagues to do and our institutions to do is to is to stop at that moment and rethink what is possible. There's a moment of opportunity when we can have a much bigger dream about what can be accomplished and how quickly it can get done.

So the old way was to have an idea to put our heads down practice our our crafts of scholarship and design for 2, 3, 5, 10 years, sometimes, and then come up for air and share what we know. From what I've observed about how successful humanistic enlightenment activities are being done on the web, this moment can be much more powerful, if immediately the organization thinks globally, thinks "Internet by default" and thinks "open."

These ideas I'm borrowing from, stealing from, adapting from, the great thinkers who have been writing about this for more than a decade - - both Chris Andersons: Chris Anderson of TED and Chris Anderson of wired; Clay Shirkey; David Weinberger... Tim O'Riley wrote what is web 2.0 in 2005 ...still incredibly valid and pertinent. Work globally - - global by default, open by default, web by default.

When we developed the Smithsonian's web and new media strategy in 2008-2009, instead of having that be an internal committee driven process, much like we would would do an exhibition, a publication, we chose to immediately take it to a public-facing wiki ...Every conversation we had internally was “wiki-cast” live. We recognized that we didn't have the expertise - - even at the Smithsonian, which is the largest museum and research complex in the world - - we did not have the expertise to say the last word about education in the digital age, curation in the digital age. We worked open, we worked quickly, we set up the project so that it could evolve: the actual strategy is the wiki, if you and I want to change it today we can go in and edit it, make comments, suggestions, and that fast and open process let us do something that would normally take two or three years, hundreds of committee meetings - - it let us do that in six-weeks. That process seems to be replicable to almost every aspect of what museums do, but we have to give up control, give up the illusion of control, and substitute for honesty and integrity.

[Scope, Scale and Speed - Video 3 of 4]

I've been looking for patterns - - how to describe and think about what's working and trying different ways - - all of us who have been thinking about this have been trying different ways of explaining it to people, understanding it ourselves, to turn these ideas and these sensations that we have that the world is changing, citizens can participate, that our institutions can do more, ...trying to put words around that, so we can use those ideas as tools. And I keep coming back to these 3 ideas, scope, scale, and speed.

So, scope is what we choose to work on - - and we have choices, we have a choice. Nowhere is it written in laws of the universe that we must work a certain way. We come to work each morning, you and I, and we do a job, and that I could be different. Scale is how big that work can be - - not just in terms of many consumers reached, but impact in society, depth impact on individuals... and then speed is how quickly it can happen. And I think that fundamentally and constitutionally the world has changed in those three dimensions, scope, scale, and speed. The scale and the speed should come back and teach us a new lesson about the scope, what we dream of accomplishing.

So, much of my thinking and work - - when I wake up at night and have dreams and I'm spacing out on the train and reading and thinking about how these three things fit together, and how to build these concepts into a toolkit that you and I and our colleagues can use to do better, more, to accomplish more in society.

The scale piece is very interesting to me. I think our primate minds have evolved to think in a certain range of scale very comfortably. We can know about a hundred people, we can know a certain geographic area, we can think clearly about 1 or 100 or 1,000 of something, but when you get beyond a certain point the ideas are very abstract and they don't come naturally to us and we need to train to get good at them - - we need to practice. Was it Aristotle who said something like "we are what we celebrate." And a physical therapist I know said "we get what we practice." You get what you practice. So this thinking in new ways about scale is very challenging.

I mentioned the TED Talks earlier: the TED Conference has served a billion videos. That's a big number. There's nothing about the organization of Ted that a museum couldn't duplicate, couldn't have duplicated. It's a very simple concept short talks from great thinkers. The Ted team...I don't know that they understood the power of global video, but they had a hunch. They started experimenting with putting a few videos online in 2006 and now they've got a billion videos served. The Wikimedia projects have had almost 2 billion edits now, with no central control.

I'm very interested in the MOOC movement - - Massively Open Online Courses - - they're not so much known in museum leadership circles, it's an emerging idea. A Princeton University professor recently taught an introduction to sociology class that he's taught for many years at Princeton, but he offered it online, for free, to anyone in the world I don't remember the exact number of participants, but it was easily over [40,000] people signed up to take this course online. So that's a big number. The most interesting thing about it to me was that the professor said he got more useful feedback on the class in the first week or two than he had received in 20 years the teaching the class at Princeton University. Sociology, many of the topics that our museums and libraries and archives celebrate, benefit from a multiplicity of perspectives, global perspectives, cultural perspectives: the more people we involve in those conversations the richer the dialogue can be, the more quickly we can advance our understanding of these topics.

One of the great physicists, I think it was Richard Feynman, said "there's something different about big." And I'm not arguing that everything needs to be about bigness, but just that there's a lot beneficial work that can be done in society by thinking about big. I don't just want big: I want more of everything.

I often get asked, well, that's great for the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum and research complex, to talk about working big but how does that relate to my museum? Most museums in the United States, and the American Alliance of Museums is calculating how many museums there are, they think there maybe forty thousand museums in the US - - the average staff size is three or four people. They're tiny. How do we work big? If we don't have a webmaster, we don't have a... you know, what does this mean for us? All of the examples that I found, almost all the examples that I found, about ideas, projects, that have scaled globally and benefited from an audience of participants, are very small teams. I would argue it even a disadvantage to be big: the big organizations can't get out of their own way fast enough to communicate clearly with global audiences often.

I'm a big fan of Smarthistory, "SM" art history, by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. They're both art history professors, Beth is a museum professional, they became frustrated by the lack of good art history information online - - there's a lot of information, there some excellent information being produced by museums and individuals, but they thought there could be more, so they started making it themselves. With an annual tech budget about seven hundred dollars and a clear vision of how easy it is to produce web video, I mean look at you, Rui, we're here, a guy and a camera, and earphones, and you're going to reach a global audience - - you are reaching a global audience of web and museum experts: very simple, you don't have to buy servers, you don't have to rack servers... they understood this, they started creating content. Beth has said: “as professors we could reach 200 students a semester.” Last semester, Smarthistory videos reached 750,000 learners. They are now part of the Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy is a this is basically an online ...I won't say university...it's an online learning space started by Salman Khan, who has a wonderful TED talk that should be required viewing in any museum leadership team...That project started with one guy teaching his nieces and nephews math. When he wasn't with them he thought well I just record a video of these concepts, and what's the best way to share video? YouTube. So he put them on YouTube. He found two things: he found that his cousins, nieces, and nephews, preferred the online him to the actual him, because they could watch his talks at their own pace whenever they wanted to, they could rewind and we watch parts of the instruction... And he also found he started getting email and comments from people all over the world who are also learning from his videos.

(David Lee King is a librarian and US who runs virtual library branch in Kansas. He said "it is easy for me to share a video with everyone in the world... a book review, than it is to share it with just my residents of Topeka, Kansas.)

So Beth and Stephen are now part of the Khan Academy. I love the way Salman Khan talks: he says sure, we serve 1.2 million users a month, more or less, we have this many hundred hours of video... Now I wanna talk to you about what we're going to do when we get really big.

So, this idea...I think about Kickstarter, which has funded [319 million] dollars for projects last year using contributions from people in 177 countries. All these projects are very easy to produce, they don't need the teams, they need the idea, first and foremost, that they can work globally, open, quickly, on the Internet.

There's another aspect of this: as you and I have been talking, I'm so aware of the importance of one-to-one interaction, and I think I that is always going to be important, and we know that deep, deep learning, certain kinds of deep learning, certain kinds of citizenship - - happen best in small groups working locally. The challenge is how to scale that.

I think the Wikimedia model of a global organization, with an open governance structure, with a very clear call to action - - Wikipedia's very simple, and has been consistently simple since its founding - - but that allows local chapters, local individuals, people, to meet, enjoy the camaraderie and collegiality of working together, can inspire each other at the local level and interpret the big mission to their local interest. I think that model is amazingly powerful and scalable. If you were...If someone were to come to us and say "Michael, Rui, there's this new thing where we have a hundred we have 44,000 organizations in the United States dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge, maintaining history, building cultural connections... what could we do? That would be incredible gift. That’s museums in the US: 44,000 roughly. There are 140-something thousand libraries and US. What an opportunity to build personal local connections around a global call to action. That's an incredible head start, society has been very smart maintaining that. Now is the moment when we need to transition. We need to step on the gas.


[Speed - Video 4 of 4]

I've been doing a lot of reading about how humans perceive time, perceive speed, perceive velocity, and it's been observed the humans have no neurological organ, framework, that's dedicated to time and speed. It's a very awkward concept and I think about... there's been some research that indicates that the Neolithic cave paintings in Europe were created during a time of artistic and cultural continuity that lasted twenty-five thousand years. 25,000, and we were talking about this at the dish conference in in Rotterdam a few years ago... twenty-five thousand years of continuous human continuity and culture, that's so different than what's happening now, today. So this idea speeders is hard, and gets metaphysical very quickly.

That being said, people who develop websites, who think on the web and work on the web, work with technology, have observed from practical terms, practical tools - - pen, pencil - - that it's so much easier to get things done now than it was a few years ago. Back in the 90's when I was doing web stuff at the Asian art museums, we had an exhibition where we wanted visitors to share their tourist photographs of India, online. This is back when AOL, American Online, was big, people had dialup modems, not a lot of people had digital cameras. I learned and wrote in Pearl, basically, Flickr, our own version of Flickr, a photo sharing website, because there really wasn't a Flickr, so we wrote it.

Fast-forward 10 years, fifteen years, and the tools we have available to us, solid, for free, powerful, the user interfaces have gotten good, they're available in beautiful simple interfaces on our mobile devices - - that's real. Kevin Rose the founder of Digg, has said: 3 or 4 years ago, 5 years ago, if you had an idea, it was hard, it was expensive, you probably needed investors, needed to rack servers, you needed to buy infrastructure, you needed programmers. Now you have an idea - - for a couple thousand dollars you can see if it works, you can test it with real audiences. And the learning about it can accelerate, can take off immediately. And that's the... I think being able to do things quickly is like compound interest. There's the apocryphal story that Albert Einstein was asked what the greatest invention of humankind was, and he said compound interest... That story isn't real, but it demonstrates a true point - - thinking about that... the team we were talking about earlier that works in secret for two years: sure great things can happen that way, but if they very early on produce a website, put their ideas on a wiki, build a community - - in days, not months or years, they can really begin learning and refining quickly. That's the pattern I think, that will lead to better, more impactful work in museums. Not exclusively, but there's a lot of open territory to explore there, and we're not even talking yet about the real time web, about social media, real time social media's impact on society, on reporting, on people's expectations about how news is made and consumed and shared... There's a lot of thinking that we need to do about how new ideas about speed, at global scale impact knowledge creation, society, etcetera, etcetera.

Peter Schwartz from Global Business Networks, which is a consultancy in nonprofit strategy, came to work with the Smithsonian in 2008 or so, and he observed that museums, like universities, were built on the model of enduring wisdom: you don't need to work fast, you don't need to change, you don't need to listen very carefully to the outside world, on a daily basis, a weekly/monthly basis, because you're creating wisdom, knowledge, and knowledge endures. I thought that was a very powerful observation.  And of course there's an element to that that will always be true: we will always need the scholar who goes up onto the mountaintop and thinks difficult thoughts for 10 years without interruption and comes back down with a new idea, a new concept, a breakthrough - - there will always be a need in society for that kind of mind, and that kind of innovation, but there's also so much value to be had in building a network of people with shared interest.

Chris Anderson, from Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail, stood in front of a Smithsonian audience and said "pick any object from your collection, your 137 million object collection... the person in the world knows the most about that object, not only do they not work for you, you don't even know who they are, you can't even find them, but if you put that object online, if you share what you know about it, if you share its digital surrogate, openly, so that it can spread, so that it can be reinterpreted and built upon, the people who know about that thing will find you and they'll find each other.” So if our job as institutions in society is to have more knowledge created, ...the “innovation” word gets thrown around a lot... more innovation, more knowledge creation, more learning, more understanding - - where is that insight and innovation going to come from? Only from our experts? Or potentially from everyone else in the world.

I think we can have both, they're not mutually exclusive. We've made a series of bets in society over the last 100 years: we halved global illiteracy, we've eliminated many diseases in the world, we've changed the way we practice medicine, science, we've opened up learning and education to millions of people - - you may have heard me talking about a Tom Friedman article that India has a new "virtual middle-class" of people who are profoundly poor but who now have access to the Internet in their homes, they can get the same services, the same information, the same information about government, that they're richer middle-class countrymen have. That virtual middle class is 300 million people. This is profound, in society. So the idea that our knowledge institutions will best serve society by just working quietly, in isolation, is incomplete solution to the problem.

The other day, I was cleaning out old books from my house. My children are teenagers now, looking through their old children's books, the board books - - those heavy cardboard box that early readers learn to work with, I found a copy of The Tortoise and the Hare, which is known everywhere in the world as one of Aesop's fables about an arrogant, fast rabbit who challenges a slow but steady turtle to a race. And the moral is that slow and steady wins the race. And that's something that we teach our children: humility, steadiness, focus, is the way to lead your life. But it occurred to me that that equation only works if you know what race you running in, and if the finish line stays in one place. And that now, where carbon in the atmosphere is pushing for 400 parts per million, globalization is imposing pressures on society that we've never seen before, in the United States certainly we're in a particularly difficult moment politically, where we need all of the wisdom, all of the foresight we can muster, that the finish line is moving, and it is racing away from us faster than we can run if we stick with only slow and steady.

You were talking to me earlier about the connection between wisdom, and knowledge, and action, and I feel very strongly that now is the time for us to place some bets. The Internet has been around for a while, we've seen a lot of things that work at scale, quickly, successfully, in harmony with our mission, to the benefit of society: now is the time to place the bet.