First Monday

Envisioning American Art 2.0 by Elizabeth Broun



Many thanks to Anne for that very beautiful introduction. Little did I know that she shares my passion for Albert Pinkham Ryder. I do encourage all of you to come and see our museum. It is just beyond dazzling. We worked there for many years without realizing what a beautiful building it was and it never looked better than today.

I especially want to acknowledge the three organizations that put this conference together because over the years, not just the WebWise conference, but so many other occasions to bring us together to talk about these issues have been provided by these three — by IMLS, OCLC and the Getty Trust. I just cannot say how important it has been for me personally to be able to network and learn from these events.

[Video Presentation]

DR. BROUN: That was the fun part of the presentation. As I stand up here I have to give special thanks to Michael Edson on the front row for creating that for us.

This is probably the moment for me to confess the truth, which is everything I know about this subject I have learned from my talented staff over many years. Our very first research database dated back to the early 1970s and was prepared as a celebration of America’s Bicentennial in 1976. One of the participants in doing it was Eleanor Fink. She was one of the first to introduce me to the potential for searchable databases. Then she was succeeded by Rachel Allen, who is now the deputy director of our museum and integral to all of our programs, one of the wisest content managers I have ever known. We were fortunate, in the early nineties, to hire a publications chief to help us produce books. His name was Steve Dietz and as soon as the Web became a factor he would prove to be one of the most intuitive people about the potential of the Internet in museums. He was the one who helped me over some of those crucial humps like, can we really afford to put our images into digital format online? Won’t someone steal them? He was the one who helped me through what I think of as early questions.

We went on to have a great many talented people, too numerous to mention. I might just cite Thorny Staples, who was particularly gifted in figuring out applications that are richly meaningful for the humanities. We currently have a terrific internal team. I might just mention Christine Hennessey, who heads our Research and Scholars Center, a long–timer with superb database management skills, and Theresa Slowik, our current publications chief. They have adopted and integrated technology into all the ways we work every day — not just for a Web program, but for tagging and filters and everything that makes our content more useful. And now we have Mike Edson to head our technology programs and I feel very privileged to be able to work with him and a great team.

We want to be the place to go for American art. We want to be the crossroads for everyone who has a question about American art. But we know that, although we have been able to achieve some great things in the past and we are very proud of our accomplishments, this field is changing faster and faster every day and it is harder and harder for us to keep on top of the way we use the Internet and all of the other new media programs. It is all changing too quickly.

When we started, back in the mid–nineties, a Web site was a nifty extra. You could get some recognition for putting some images online, or doing something related to one of the exhibitions, and it would enhance your brand. But today it is totally integral. There is really no way any longer for public museums and libraries to separate their bricks and mortar business from their virtual business. They have to integrate with each other, and it is no longer optional to do these things. It is now required.

We know that one of the impacts of all of these new media programs and Internet programs is to cause some really serious disruptions in traditional business models. It is a big threat right now to the print and broadcast media businesses, and in a way, if we don’t get on top of it, we could find our very own nonprofit business empires threatened as well. So new media and Internet strategies are not just an option, not just an enhancement, but a requirement.

As we think about strategy, we have decided that we should adopt a long–tail strategy. Most of you know this is Chris Anderson’s idea that the Internet has transformed how business cultures work. It is no longer necessarily the handful of top hits that will drive most of your traffic or business. If you aggregate all of those little niche interests and individualized hits that come in the long tail, you can actually create a business model around that.

Imagine that Ryder is somewhere there on the long tail. He is not O’Keeffe, he is not Hopper, he is more of a cult figure in American art with a passionate following, but it is small. And after Ryder we have something like 7,000 artists represented in our collection and about 6,900 are somewhere there on the long tail.

We think this is a strategy that will work for us. Ken Hamma talked about it earlier. It is not that we have to do something dramatically new and different. What we need to do is figure out the strengths of what we have already been doing and find a way to adapt those to this new culture. We have a priceless collection. We have a wonderful and talented staff. We have always been devoted to research and scholarship, so our files are bursting with information and content. We want to share knowledge. We have a role as a federal museum with an entire national purview, and the museum has always been a populist place that believes in giving back to the public. So what we need to do is harness all those assets and use them for the benefit of American Art 2.0.

We have analyzed our Web site to try to figure out who is coming, for what reasons. It is interesting to find out that the ten most visited areas of our Web site, if you add them up, only generate 25 percent of our traffic. The other 75 percent comes from the long tail. At least two–thirds of our visitors do not come to see something that we have shaped and created specifically for them, such as our online exhibitions. Instead they are coming for our assets, our data, our content; they have a question about American art and they are hoping to find the answer somewhere in the assets that we provide. They are not coming to hear what we want to tell them. They are coming to find what they want to know.

Anne talked a little about the Luce Foundation Center for American Art in our museum; this is a publicly visible art storage and study facility. On the left you see the extremely beautiful historic wing where it is housed. It has a floor level and two mezzanines. On the upper right you get a glimpse of the 64 glass cases and below you see one of the nifty drawers pulled open. We have drawers for portrait miniatures, for medals and medallions, and for the craft jewelry. This facility has allowed us to go from traditionally showing 1,000 art works in our public galleries, to being able to show four times that many artworks, because 3,400 artworks are on view in this Center.

It is immensely popular with the public. We think one reason is that you have the feeling of getting behind the scenes. Visitors think, “Okay, the curator has decided what I should be looking at in the galleries,” and that’s a very kind of top–down authoritarian kind of structure. But when you come to the Luce Center, you get to decide for yourself and see all of the things that the curators didn’t choose.

While we were preparing this physical place, we had a team of people working to generate an artist’s biography for every one of the artists represented in this Center. We have data and information and research on every one of the 3,400 objects there. All of this is posted online. We have a number of media assets as well, including a hundred artist interviews and videos. So we have tried to make it a very rich place for knowledge and I think that is driving a lot of traffic to our Web site. This may be our poster child for bringing the bricks and mortar museum and the virtual museum in synch with each other.

Now where do we go from here? We think we have been using some of these long–tail ideas in an intuitive way over a while, but we really need now to establish it as a firm strategy. We need to figure out what resources and requirements are needed. And this slide is our diagram of what we think is involved.

We want to determine the scope of what we intend to put online and publish. We think the answer to that is to publish everything. Then we want to figure out how we are going to make it easy to find, because without that users will become frustrated or will never know it is there. Third we have to find a way to put our users or our customers at the center of everything we do. Finally we have to recognize the harsh reality that this is going to take a lot more financial and staff resources than we have allocated so far. We can’t continue to do it on a shoestring.

Let’s start with “publish everything.” Our museum has objects that have been collected since 1829, so we have assets and information dating back a long way. We started our research programs in a major significant way in the 1970’s. We have enormous files, enormous records, huge databases, and fabulous ephemera that have been accumulating now for at least 37 years. Not all of it is accurate but it is in there, and we think little by little we should find a way to create content online that spreads across the entire long tail, the whole scope of the collections.

In the past we have tended to put our online projects at the end of the museum food chain. We would prepare a big show — like George Catlin and His Indian Gallery ( We would spend a couple of years generating research, writing catalog essays, preparing label text, doing public programs, gathering together all the assets, sending them through multiple reviews, sending them to the editors, and then finally at the end of all that, we would post an enormous site on George Catlin and it would be a wonderful rich resource for scholars.

We are moving away from that strategy now. We want to do more with what we think of as “micro” content. We would like to be leaner and faster, we would like to be posting things more frequently. We’re moving away from an “all or nothing” risk, where if something doesn’t work you have lost an enormous amount of effort.

We would like to make it a habit that content is constantly being posted. If it needs further editorial review or if there is some error found, we know we can always go back and do that. Getting away from a monolithic structure and looking at something that is a little faster and leaner and more about micro–content allows us to sprinkle information all across the collection assets and not just focus for a year or two on a single artist.

We have been doing something similar with our blog ( We posted 110 small stories last year that gave us a chance to address a wealth of topics and to engage people in conversation about them.

Another way we have used micro–content is to ransack all of our past publications and also the work we are doing for the Luce Foundation Center for biographical information on artists. Recently we posted 1,300 artist’s biographies (, which turn out to be a very rich draw for users.

So we are looking for ways to adopt a strategy that is not so labor–intensive to get information online. It is challenging however because to use this micro–content and make it meaningful, you have to have the structure to support it. We know this means getting more robust and seamless art information databases.

Right now we are drawing on our Web site from 23 data sources, created in many formats over many years. We have over one million records. It is a jumble. We would like to rationalize with a better, stronger infrastructure. We need better data design. We need content management to be made more robust. We need to emphasize a lightweight technological framework.

The second thing we want to do is make all the content more easily findable. We are going now from “the book” with a table of contents and an index to the Web site. We know that “real estate” on our homepage is limited. We have exactly 12 topics listed on this very first screen. It doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what is in the 23 databases and all the other assets we have. I am constantly hearing from staff that “we have this fabulous asset but nobody can find it online.” How are we going to make all this findable?

We can create all the content in the world but if it is not easy for users to find, it won’t do us very much good. Somehow we need better human interface design. We need better graphic design; we need better information architecture; we need much better search engine technology. That comment earlier today about how everybody is coming to Google rather than the library homepages is absolutely true of museums as well.

There are other challenges also to accomplishing our goals. For instance, we are the poster child for brand confusion. These nine names are just some of the names that are associated with our program. Our parent organization, our museum name, our new centers, the Reynolds Center name that is applied to the entire complex, the historic name of the building, our branch museum at the Renwick Gallery, and of course our close partnership with the National Portrait Gallery — all have individual brand names.

I don’t know if we will ever completely resolve this dilemma but we can do a lot to improve the situation. How I would love to just have the name “MOMA”!

We are making this a top priority as we figure out how to communicate with our users.

The third element is how to put our customers (or viewers or users) at the center of everything we do. They are extraordinary. We find that people who are interested in American art come to us from an enormous range of backgrounds and interests. They might love American art; they might be interested in American history or some aspect of American culture; or it might be something completely different that brings them to us. It might be about how artworks are made or artists’ materials — just an infinitude of ways to access what we do.

I know Mike Edson says that in his neighborhood, demographically and economically, everybody looks pretty similar, but one of his neighbors races Chinese dragon boats, another one is an amateur astronomer, and a third is a back–country kayaker. These niche interests are out there and people come to us for peculiar reasons that we can’t always know. What we do know is, just from looking at eBay or Wikipedia or Flickr, is that if we could harness that we would really be onto something great. In this long–tail strategy, finding a way to capture the passion that our fabulous customers or users are bringing to us is really key. If we can find a way to make that the centerpiece of our strategy, we will be okay.

We are going to start by focusing on our core customers, the people who know and love what we do. They are probably best positioned to tell us why they come and where they want us to go. Then there are others who come to “sample us.” They come, have that first flush of enthusiasm, and then what? How do we capture them and make ours an important site for them to come back to? One way to do that is to allow them to add their knowledge to our site. I don’t know if that means tagging or adding reviews or some other way of posting what they know. We really haven’t solved that yet.

Of course there is always some conceptual “stone in the road” that you have to deal with. There’s one that I am stuck on right now. I know that our museum, like all of your institutions, represents something very special to the public. We are regarded as experts who have authenticated knowledge. People believe they can trust what they see on our site because we will have gotten it right. We don’t want to dilute that sense of authority by having a free–for–all with everybody’s information completely jumbled up with our own expert knowledge.

But others have confronted this and we think we can do it too. Frankly the relationship between institutions like ours and the people they serve has been turned upside down. Not for nothing did Time say “you” are the Man of the Year. Things are different now, and we must confront this. Otherwise we are going to become “timeless oracles” who are sitting on the sidelines of the future.

Again, we can start by going back to what we are already doing well. We use a lot of volunteers in a lot of ways, and they already contribute a lot. How do we adapt some of those volunteer programs so they can “volunteer” online as well? There’s one classic example, which I really love: for about a decade we did an inventory of all public sculpture across America. This was a wonderful program that we did in partnership with Heritage Preservation. We involved thousands of volunteers over all the fifty states to find, catalog and assess the condition of public monuments. We put all the data into a searchable database online. We did not verify the information, though we corrected anything we knew was wrong, but for the most part this was user–created or volunteer–created information. It is an absolutely fabulous, searchable inventory of 32,000 public monuments across America, a truly great resource. So we are going to try to build on ideas like that.

These notions of trust are changing. We need to be a site that is alive and listening. We need to inspire devotion from our users that makes them want to participate and contribute. After all, we are an art museum and we are here to honor the creativity in each and every one of us. We need to keep that idea foremost as we address these issues about how to capture the value of our users.

One way that we are doing it now is through our national education program, where we are engaging a lot of teachers and students to use online resources and to contribute their help creating curriculum and content.

The fourth element naturally follows from the other three. We have achieved what we have accomplished so far just by raiding the museum budget, i.e. snatching a few thousand dollars here and there, or maybe moving a position from one office to the IT office. We have worked on a shoestring. We have never had enormous grants or new federal allocations for technology or media. We have had to be smart.

I think we have reached the end of that strategy. We just opened our great historic landmark building after a long and expensive renovation. We didn’t try to do it on a shoestring or out of the existing budget. We confronted head–on the fact that doing this renovation properly was going to require hundreds of millions of dollars. We took the case to the Congress; we took the case to private funders. We accomplished something magnificent that everyone is very proud of, but we acknowledged up front that it was going to cost a bundle — and it did.

So I think we have to do the same with American Art 2.0. In retrospect I wish I could go back seven years and, as we were planning the museum renovation, embed within the plan all of these ideas for the future of American Art 2.0. Instead I now say, look, we have completed renovation of the bricks and mortar museum. Now we are going to turn to renovating the virtual museum. And I think it is going to take a lot of money. I don’t see any other way. We need a strong strategy and we must persuade people that it is worth doing.

To use another buzzword, we want to widen the pipes. We have the right history and the right collections and the right mission and the right attitude and the right audience to succeed in this new marketplace. We don’t have to strike out in some radically different direction. We have to build on what we have done, get smart about how to adapt it, and try to use the strengths that we already have.

This highly complicated technology architecture slide symbolizes some of my more apprehensive moments, when I’m concerned about how we are going to manage to do all this. But we can simplify the message. We want to build value incrementally. We want to enjoy and learn from interacting with our users and our audiences. We want to share our passion and we want to make a lot more information, a lot more insight, and a lot more excitement flow between us and them. End of article


About the author

Elizabeth Broun is Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.



Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, Elizabeth Broun.

Envisioning American Art 2.0 by Elizabeth Broun
First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July 2007),