Open Access, Open Artifact

Michael Edson, the Director of Web & New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian, is an advocate of open access and the creative commons.  In his speeches and presentations, he channels the open access/open source/creative commons mantra of Shirky, Benkler and Lessig.  This theoretical base of open access, that content should be free and accessible and amendable to the world and that access barriers must be torn down, is not a new strategy — the Internet was borne of such thinking.  But this is a challenging perspective to hold when in a space of tangible objects, for which there is monetary value in their representation.

I have a note in my phone from a meeting I had with Edson back in March; he was kind enough to take time to speak to a group of faculty and students from Pepperdine’s EDLT program in Learning Technologies.  Edson was quoting a man whose name I wrote down as Brand Faron, and he was quoting an idea that was at least 10 years old, which was that every American citizen should be given a Smithsonian artifact, and it would be their job to be that artifact’s steward.  Not only would such an idea create an interest in American history, but it would truly open the access of institutions like the Smithsonian to the masses, so that the exhibits and models that purport to be interactive would not just be window dressing or lip service, as every American would be directly involved in the curation and cultivation of the Smithsonian.

This idea has not taken shape.  And while it got Mr. Edson excited, there is a lack of infrastructure (and likely buy-in) to set it forward.  Artifacts are irreplacable and they are invaluable.   The logistics of creating such a system would be monumental, and the current political climate wishes to put less intrusion of government into American lives, not assign them an artifact in an exercise with no benefit measurable on our existing scales.

But why can’t we do this on a smaller level?

Many museums lack a digital presence.  Most museums have stock rooms full of artifacts that they cannot display and often have not even organized or archived.  Many museums are afraid of losing control of the images and the content in their walls (copyright protectors have always feared losing the copyright).  These museums are also losing patrons in the form of school students whose districts can no longer afford trips to museums.  The result is a museum education system that creates curriculum and sends staff to schools to discuss these items, and perhaps show them, but it completely strips the informal learning environment from the situation, as the environment remains a school and the objects lose any context outside of their modern habitat.

There are needs for museums, schools and students, and by working together these needs can be met.  And we can control a situation where artifacts become part of the American system, and it happens in educative walls.  And we can see how it works, and test this idea that open access is a brilliant thing and that copyright infringement fears are superficial.

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