Technology anchors American Indian museum

National Museum of the American Indian

Old rules don't apply at the newest Smithsonian Institution museum. The most familiar rule, for example, "look but don't touch," would mean missing an in-depth glimpse into peace medals, beaded hats, spear points and many other artifacts displayed on detail-rich touch screens.

Visitors to the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened last week, see flowing curves on the building's exterior and a billowing high-tech universe within. Interactive learning is at the forefront, and the museum's collections are as fluid and dynamic as its architecture.

Officials at the museum, which has a fiscal 2004 technology budget of $4 million and $1.5 million for fiscal 2005, intend to use information technology to enable American Indians to speak about their experiences and heritage. In addition, officials aim to teach about IT to communities nationwide, particularly to American Indian youth.

Since President George H.W. Bush signed legislation 15 years ago authorizing the museum's creation, 800,000 objects have been transported from a research facility in the Bronx, N.Y., to the Washington, D.C., museum.

One of the museum's features, Window on Collections, pairs items in a glass display case with virtual versions on a touch screen. Visitors can examine the objects by dragging a virtual magnifying glass over them or rotating images on the screen. The touch screens provide additional information about artifacts through audio or video clips of a curator's explanation and graphic illustration of the object's geographic origins, date and culture.

Following the curve of the building, visitors will find an expansive Interactive Learning Center that features 18 interactive Web-enabled stations. Providing electronic tools, the stations guide people to American Indian Web sites and other information. The center has a DSL connection that is separate from the Smithsonian's network to guard against hackers.

The museum's exhibits enhance visitors' experiences with 37 interactive computers. Twelve of them are Window on Collections kiosks, displaying objects from the museum's collections. The opening exhibits present 25 components featuring interactive touch screens.

An interface supplies a directory of Web sites for the public to search using different criteria, such as tribe, region or topic. Museum staff maintain the database.

"It will grow over time, as the staff continues to enter new resources," said Bart Marable, creative director of Terra Incognita Productions. "There will be literally hundreds or even thousands of new Web sites that will be cataloged in the database."

Developing a database also meant creating a standard taxonomy of criteria, such as the myriad cultures and regions, to help IT staff standardize information for museum visitors.

Reaching out

The museum is the fourth installation of a cluster that includes the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City; the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md.; and a virtual museum, which is still taking shape.

These museums not only display American Indian history and culture but also provide a high-tech resource for teachers.

Officials at the Heye Center have launched a youth outreach program that teaches American Indian children about digital imaging. The children can scan images of tribal artifacts into a database, write about the artifacts' significance and take a virtual tour of the museum.

The program was especially valuable because "it's what the kids had to say," said Marty de Montana, the Cultural Resources Center's manager. "Sometimes the [artifacts] relate directly to the students. We all want the children to learn technology without giving up their culture." The new museum will feature an extended version of the program.

Innovative technology

An interactive, evolving museum called for an innovative information system.

Traditionally, a museum's information system consisted of unconnected parts: a collections system, an archival system sometimes containing a component for photo archives information, a library information system and hand-written research notes held in curatorial files. But officials took a different path.

IT staff have structured information as a "glob," an interconnected cluster of all these components, with a few additional ones such as Microsoft Corp. Word files, Web site information and Extensible Markup Language-based electronic publications, said Jane Sledge, the museum's manager of information and technology resources.

The glob was created with information-sharing in mind. Collections are designed to be evolving, as community members enrich computer records with personal stories from their experiences and perspectives.

Technology helps honor American Indian communities' cultural details. For instance, one component of the Collections Information System, which is still under development, will restrict access to viewers based on their gender and other criteria. It can also provide traditional care instructions. For example, some tribal artifacts were traditionally pointed west, underwent annual smoke cleansing or were stored on upper shelves apart from others.

In addition to the collections system, the IT infrastructure includes a content management system and digital assets management. The content management system includes the names and tribal nation registrations of the 14,000 Native Americans who participated in the procession on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., last week to celebrate the museum's opening. The system will manage the distribution of electronic newsletters to subscribers. It also helps museum staff work more closely with volunteers, members and interns.

The digital asset management portion of the infrastructure tracks images, audio, video and graphics, with various versions of them to fit each type of presentation.

The museum's information glob, or metadata repository, is intended to allow staff, researchers, American Indians and others to search multiple information resources. Users will be able to access the museum's holdings and collections at other museums, libraries and archives. They can then create a file of information for a specific project or task, Sledge said.

"Users will be able to add information to individual existing records or the general file itself that will enrich our glob," she said. "Museums need systems to manage new and additional information that extends the knowledge base."

Chourey is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, Calif.

A unique mission

The National Museum of the American Indian's unique mission brings a special set of challenges. Museum officials follow a careful path to build the collections and provide information-rich access while respecting American Indian cultures.

"We have a desire to be culturally appropriate, to sensitively respect collections," said Janet Sledge, the museum's information and technology resources manager (pictured at left).

"We're evolving a sensitive care policy with the help and input of communities," she said, because "who else would really know?"

To build the community programs, museum officials start by consulting elders and other tribal leaders and providing digital resources and software to the communities. Then, tribal representatives define their intellectual property rights, sensitive care issues and access controls for their artifacts.

Museum workers link spoken and textual annotations to the items, and the images and accompanying information are then used as educational resources for museum-goers and expanded for outreach to various communities.

—Sarita Chourey

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