<< Goals 5 - 8 | Table of Contents | Appendix >>

IV. The Smithsonian Commons: A Place to Begin


A digital Smithsonian Commons unifies the themes and goals articulated in this strategy.

The Smithsonian Commons will be a special part of our digital presence dedicated to the free and unrestricted sharing of Smithsonian resources and encouraging new kinds of learning and creation through interaction with Smithsonian research, collections, and communities.

The digital commons movement is just a few years old but the concept of a commons is quite old. Commons are usually created when a property owner determines that a given set of resources—grass for grazing sheep, forest for parkland, software code, or intellectual property—will create more value if freely shared. Our understanding of research, education, artistic creativity, and the progress of knowledge is built on the axiom that no idea stands alone, and that all innovation is built upon the ideas and innovation of others. The Smithsonian community has always championed these ideals.

The initial Smithsonian Commons will be a Web site (also designed for mobile devices), perhaps, featuring collections of digital assets contributed voluntarily by the units and presented through a platform that provides best-of-class search and navigation; social tools such as commenting, recommending, tagging, collecting, and sharing; and intellectual-property permissions that clearly give users the right to use, re-use, share, and innovate with our content without unnecessary restrictions.

The architecture of the Smithsonian Commons will encourage the discovery of content deep within Smithsonian unit Web sites and will expose connections and commonalities across Smithsonian projects. The Smithsonian Commons will also be a platform for formal and informal collaboration and content sharing inside and outside the Institution. Through these features—collection access, sharing, social tools, and user-generated content—the Smithsonian Commons will bring together the component pieces of the updated experience, updated learning model, and balanced approach to management and governance that are the foundational themes of this Web and New Media Strategy.

Incremental Development

The Smithsonian Commons will be developed incrementally through a series of prototypes and public pilot projects designed to test and refine business models and impact on mission and audiences. The first of these pilot projects has already taken place: The Smithsonian’s participation in the Flickr Commons project demonstrated the potential of providing open access to multiple Smithsonian collections through a best-of-class social-media platform, and the SIRIS (Smithsonian Institution Research Information Service) cross-site search project Collections Search Center / EDAN (Enterprise Digital Asset Network) project demonstrates the power of providing a single point of access to Institutional collections and the increase in traffic that such utility creates. The Smithsonian’s SharePoint project and intranet redesign are demonstrating the positive effects of an improved end-user experience and a shared collaboration platform on information access and internal collaboration.

The first iteration of a Smithsonian Commons could be as simple as images of a few carefully chosen Smithsonian artifacts with links back to their collecting units and labels that clearly give the public permission to use and share the images however they see fit, as long as the Smithsonian is properly credited. Additional features such as commenting and collecting, and experiments with micro-donations, e-commerce and sponsorships, would be added one at a time and designed so that they could be used not just on the commons but independently throughout Smithsonian Web sites. Some tools would be developed to help non-Smithsonian bloggers, researchers, educators, and enthusiasts expose Smithsonian content on their own Web sites.


Though the Smithsonian’s unparalleled collections and expertise would make the Smithsonian Commons unique, there are several important precedents to this initiative. These projects have proven the positive influence of open-access and community dialogue on engagement, learning, creativity, and knowledge creation.
  • The Creative Commons and related Science Commons and ccLearn organizations encourage new kinds of sharing and reuse by providing alternatives to traditional copyright
  • The Flickr Commons increases engagement with public photography collections around the world
  • The Internet Archive creates and aggregates free, re-usable content of all kinds, including 1.2 million digital books
  • The National Institutes of Health PubMed Central publishes publicly funded research results in a public domain archive
  • MIT Open Courseware provides free access to over 1,800 courses from MIT’s curriculum
  • IBM’s Patent Commons initiatives encourage scientists and engineers to develop the unrealized potential of a large group of IBM’s technology patents

These precedents, and a detailed rationale for the commons, are described in Imagining a Smithsonian Commons.
[to-do: update list, precedents, and links to new commons-related presentations/papers - edsonm edsonm Jun 15, 2010]


Reshaping our digital identity around the concept of a Smithsonian Commons addresses many of our fundamental challenges.
  • Brand: The concept of a commons brings cohesion and clarity to the Smithsonian’s vast online offerings.
  • Audience Growth: Through the Smithsonian Commons we can seed the Internet with high-value content and use social networks to increase the relevance and value of our work. Audiences—especially digitally savvy audiences and younger visitors—will immediately understand and respond to the idea of a free Smithsonian Commons. Improved content, features, and clarity can drive audience growth.
  • Unified Operations: A voluntary Smithsonian Commons built on transparency and trust—and supporting rather than competing with the works of the individual units—provides an excellent alternative to working in silos.
  • Education: Planning next-generation learning programs is an Institutional priority. A commons can serve both as a collaborative workspace used to create learning programs and a clearinghouse to distribute and improve them.
  • Research: Smithsonian researchers need private, semi-private and public collaboration and information-access platforms to advance and share their work. Aggregating these services into a commons provides a stable base and opens the door to new kinds of cross-disciplinary investigations.
  • Revenue Generation in Harmony with Mission: Attempting to directly monetize access to, and use of, museum content does not appear to be a sustainable business model. Through these low-margin business practices, we alienate users, perpetuate the practice of institutions charging each other, discourage research and publications, and undermine our civic mission. The commons presents an alternative: gradually reduce our dependence on access and use fees by aggregating larger number of visitors under a strong brand supported by sponsorships and other value-added products and services. It is likely that the Smithsonian will make more money by promoting “free” resources to a large audience than it can make charging small amounts for small transactions to a small audience, and it is a much better fit with the mission.
  • Leadership and Legacy: Championing free and open content and asserting the critical role of public institutions in stimulating innovation and knowledge creation would define the Smithsonian as a leader. Science, education, creativity, and civic discourse are all headed towards a participatory commons model

Policy/Program Goals

  • Findability/Connections: Demonstrate a model that improves the findability of Smithsonian resources and allows learners to expose and explore contextual/thematic relationships across the Smithsonian
  • Democratize Access: Demonstrate the power of democratizing access to information through a shared commons platform that encourages personal exploration, creativity, and innovation
  • Brand: Assert the relevance/excitement of the Smithsonian brand by highlighting the depth and vitality of our work and collections
  • Learning: Demonstrate the ways in which open access and shared tools support formal education and facilitate self-directed learning for people of all ages
  • Balance: Demonstrate that a shared platform, developed through a trusted partnership among stakeholders (and the public), can successfully balance internal concerns about authority and control
  • Funding: Use the commons to attract the funding necessary to update the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media operations and business models

Tactical Implementation

  • Seek informational meetings with leading foundations (that have supported commons and open-access initiatives in the past) to gauge interest in supporting a Smithsonian Commons and new models of learning and engagement
  • Evaluate current revenue streams derived from digital image access/use and develop an evidence-based business plan for a commons
  • Develop a prototype of the Smithsonian Commons to test assumptions and provide a tangible demonstration of the concept for fundraising and evangelization
  • Solicit input from our Smithsonian 2.0 “digerati” and develop a core-group from a variety of disciplines to help shape and build external support for the commons
  • Explore the connection between the digital Smithsonian Commons and the emerging program goals for the Arts and Industries Building, National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and other Institution initiatives

(What needs to happen next? See Moving Forward.)

<< Goals 5 - 8 | Table of Contents | Appendix >>
pageIcon.gif Download print .pdf