Smithsonian makes an art of Web posting

In an effort to "move art from the wall to the Web," the Smithsonian Institution has begun to capture digital images of its artifacts and photography collections to post on the Internet.

The Smithsonian has 3-D images of Superman's suit, a 1950s pogo stick and a cookie jar from the National Museum of American History's Popular Culture exhibit on CD-ROM and in an interactive display at the museum, and the museum expects to upload those images to the World Wide Web shortly.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has mandated that the Smithsonian museums, the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration make all artifacts and images available on the Internet before 2002.

"The Smithsonian is already busy trying to get as much information as possible into digital form," said Peter House, the Smithsonian's senior information and technology adviser.

But the Smithsonian has 250 million more pieces to digitize, which will make the 2002 deadline hard to meet. "We are going to have to ask the White House for more time," he said.

By next year, the Smithsonian hopes to have loaded more than 200,000 images onto its Web site from 55 Smithsonian locations. The site will have search capabilities that will enable users to perform keyword searches of all Smithsonian collections.

"If someone types in 'elephant,' it will pull up information from the National Zoo, paintings from the American Art Museum and copies of books from our archives," House said.

For the past six years, the Smithsonian has posted images of exhibits on its Web site (www.si.edu), but the quality and quantity of the images soon will increase. "The Internet is the future of museums," House said. "The quality of the images on the Internet is the best we could do at the time. But that will all be changing shortly."

The National Museum of American History, for example, has spent more than $200,000 to build a digitalization laboratory. In-kind donations of equipment and time also contributed to the lab, said Valeska Hilbig, spokeswoman for the museum.

The digitalization lab contains Hewlett-Packard Co. equipment for scanning and a $19,000 Fujifilm Pictrography 4000 digital color printer, which produces photograph-quality images. Digital cameras are used to capture images of artifacts that cannot be laid on an image scanner.

Smithsonian officials said the imaging equipment was chosen because it meets the Defense Department's chemical-free-printing requirements and is easy to use. "The technology is very simple yet very complex," said Ron Saltzman, national government sales manager for Fujifilm. "There is high definition in the highlights and shadows, and the only chemical used in the process is distilled water."

Adobe Systems Inc. Photoshop is used to manipulate the scanned images, and Microsoft Corp. software is used to input text to provide information about the artifacts. Several IBM Corp. and HP servers monitor the flow of information once the images are uploaded. The Smithsonian expects the servers to be upgraded by February to meet the increase in supply and demand.

By February, a collection of more than 100,000 images from the National Museum of American History will be available through the Smithsonian's Web site, according to David Allison, chairman of the museum's Information Technology and Society Division. "This will allow the American public, as well as people from around the world, to look at our entire collection," Allison said, rather than just the 1 percent to 2 percent of the collection that can be displayed at the museum.

The Smithsonian museums also have installed cameras in research facilities and on displays to relay real-time images through the Internet. The Web cameras were installed so employees or researchers working on projects together could better communicate with one another. The cameras also will enable patrons of any Smithsonian museum to view exhibits at another Smithsonian location.

The digitization of images and the placement of real-time cameras will ease information sharing among government agencies, such as the armed forces, the Library of Congress and NASA, House said.

"We will be able to share our research findings and specimens with others without them having to come here physically," he said.

In the next few years, the Smithsonian hopes to produce 3-D multimedia images on its Web site. It also plans on having Internet terminals next to all its displays to give patrons an opportunity to explore topics in greater depth.

Despite technological advances, the museums of the future will continue to display works of art on their walls, Allison said.

"People...come to a museum to see and experience a work of art," he said.

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