Finding the human connection in a digital age


You do it every day: morning commute, grab your coffee, flash your badge to the security officer, blow past Henry the Elephant and on up the stairs past the Hope Diamond and you’re at your desk. Just a typical day at the office, right?

Even though we may sometimes take our amazing museums and research centers a bit for granted, we should remind ourselves that not many have the same opportunity. Our research shows that very few people visit the Smithsonian more than three times in their lives. Let’s do the math:

Using these numbers, we could have theoretically welcomed 308 million visitors to the Smithsonian last year. In reality, not quite a tenth of that number visited our museums. That’s still a pretty substantial crowd, but while it’s not feasible to expect every soul on the planet to visit the Smithsonian in person, we need to do more to reach more people.  And if they can’t come to us, we’ll come to them.


Enter the Smithsonian mobile strategy

The Smithsonian offers more than 40 apps related to visiting, learning and research. The mobile team is now building apps that allow both visitors and non-visitors to participate in exhibits.

The pilot app for this program is used in conjunction with “American Stories” at the American History Museum. Visitors with the Access American Stories app on their smart phones record oral descriptions of objects in the exhibit. Right now, participants can choose from 100 iconic American objects on display to describe. With the app, kids learning about electricity and the beginning of artificial lighting can not only see Thomas Edison’s prototype light bulb in person but also hear visitors’ personal impressions and descriptions . Anyone – anywhere in the world – can open this app and share the reactions of others. What a bright idea!

These apps allow for something that many fear is being lost in the digital age – the human connection. Arguably the most successful app from the Smithsonian’s mobile strategy is “Stories From Main Street,”  created by the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Services to tie into their “Museums on Main Street” program. MoMS brings Smithsonian exhibits to small towns around the country with populations averaging 8,000 residents. When residents visit the traveling exhibit at their local library or community center, they can record an oral history and firsthand account of what it’s like to live in small-town America on their smart phones. The recording instantly uploads to the app and is available for all to listen.

The world is quickly becoming a mobile-friendly environment—and not just the first world. The 2012 Indian government census reported that while only 36 percent of Indian households had toilets at home, nearly 60 percent of the population had a cell phone. Mobile technology is our path to the 21st century’s visitor. While we will probably never have 308 million people stroll through our halls over the course of a year, with the tap of a screen we can put the Smithsonian in the palms of their hands.


Posted: 28 March 2013
About the Author:

A public affairs assistant in the Office of Communications and External Affairs, Emily Grebenstein is a recent graduate of The George Washington University with a degree in art history and a concentration in Italian. Emily is originally from Hingham, Mass.