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Museums and the Web

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Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy Wiki

People's Choice:
24 votes


Smithsonian Institution




Museum Professional


Strategy Themes: Screen shot from the Web and New Media Strategy wiki

The Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy wiki is a unique and valuable resource for museum professionals. I have personally referred to it throughout the Smithsonian's planning process and we are currently using it as a model in my institution as we embark upon a similar process. The strategy itself is innovative and visionary, but the way in which they developed the strategy, and continue to drive it forward through this public wiki, provides important lessons and examples for all of us who are trying to achieve similar goals in our own instituions. Because of this, the Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy wiki deserves formal recognition by Best of the Web jurors in the Museum Professional category.

1. The Strategy

The Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy was developed through a fast and transparent public process that was conceived to use the speed and transparency inherent in wiki platforms as tools for overcoming institutional inertia. Michael Edson presented a paper about this process at last year's Museums and the Web conference (see "Fast, Open, and Transparent: Developing the Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy" The strategy outlines the challenges facing 21st century museums (and institutions of all kinds) and provides a way of thinking about the challenges as well as a roadmap for overcoming them. The strategy is written in simple language that's accessible to museum professionals at all levels.

2. The process, thinking, and planning are documented in useful ways

The Smithsonian developed their Web and New Media strategy on this public facing wiki in 2009 through a process they called "workshops-to-wiki," and they continue to use the wiki to develop strategy and prototype strategic projects on the wiki to this day.

Initial planning, assumptions, and discussions about the goals of the project and the risks of failure are all plainly documented on the site, and verbatim notes from staff workshops were shared in real time on the wiki. Each of the five workshops they held is documented with the workshop discussion guides, real-time notes, follow-up notes and discussions with internal staff and external professionals, and the results of post workshop evaluation forms are all shown together. Part of the rationale for doing this seems to be that project leaders found the speed and directness of the wiki platform to be an efficient way to work, but part of it seems like a genuine effort to get smart people involved. They say on the site that, "compared to the community of external experts we're a tiny, tiny group. Our investigation of areas like intellectual property policy, platform development, mobile devices, content commons, education, and science 2.0 will benefit greatly from the participation and good will of experts and stakeholders outside the institution."

The Business Models Real-Time Notes page ( Business+Models+Workshop+Real-Time+Notes ) shows how all the strategy-planning resources (discussion guide, notes, and evaluations) fit together, and this page also shows how the group-editing capabilities of the wiki were used to flesh-out workshop discussions after the fact. (See the numerous edits and contributions to the page.)

There is also a very useful discussion of how to manage the risks of working on a public wiki at,+Success+Factors,+Risks, and the Smithsonian seems to be running a mobile strategy project on the site as well.

3. The wiki exemplifies the benefits of transparency

Project leaders seem to have been very transparent with audience and visitor feedback, and they seem honest and humble about using suggestions criticism to improve what they're doing. Post workshop evaluations are posted from every workshop, and over 1,200 public comments on their commons prototype are posted on the site, along with over 300 responses from project leaders. They've even made a page just for the negative comments about the commons project (,+I+don't+like+it). Embracing feedback of any kind at this level, let alone highlighting negative feedback, is a great example for the field.

They also seem very up front about their own failures and the things they're doing wrong as a museum. (For examples, see the risks section of Smithsonian Commons Project Charter, Smithsonian+Commons+Project+Charter , and Theme 1: Update the Smithsonian Digital Experience, This kind of honesty is really beneficial to the field because it begins to take apart the façade of perfection that most museums seem to want around themselves: once the façade is gone, real change can begin.


4. A living example of rapid prototyping and iterative/collaborative development

The wiki clearly shows how the strategy project started with some assertions about process, goals and risks, continued through development of an actual strategy, then went into a prototyping project for the Smithsonian Commons project described in the strategy, then went into the process of writing a charter for the commons project. It's remarkable to see all this happening in public view, including budget information ( Smithsonian+Commons+Project+Charter).

A great example of iterative development is demonstrated in the way they used the wiki to develop the Smithsonian Commons prototype all the way from initial concepts and information architecture through to a finished website (


The page Commons Prototype – Workspace – Home Page Content ( Commons+Prototype+-+workspace+-+home+page+content) shows initial wireframes for a screen design, a handheld video walkthrough of an early mockup, and suggested content submitted by Smithsonian web teams. The page Experience Brief  - Story 3 – Millennial ( Experience+Brief+-+Story+3+-+Millennial) shows how the wiki was used as a platform for iterative development. It displays a storyboard and creative brief embedded via scribd, and a rough conceptual YouTube video, a second-generation flash concept along with narration scripts and goals. The final videos at show how all of this content eventually came together. This is a highly useful demonstration of a fast, open, collaborative prototyping process in action, and it provides an example that can be followed by other museums.

5. It makes progress seem possible

So many museums are struggling with how to put a strategy together and how to bring their colleagues and directors along. This site—the fact that they did it on an off-the-shelf $25/year wiki, that they're being transparent, that they're working quickly, and that they're looking to the outside community for help and support—makes strategy development seem possible, and maybe even fun. Throughout the wiki there seems to be a sense of humor and humility about what they're doing that is really liberating. The message they're sending us (and probably the message they're sending themselves) is that Web strategy is hard work, but if we work together and are open to collaboration we can figure all of this out. That's a great contribution to museums everywhere.


Strategy Themes: Screen shot from the Web and New Media Strategy wiki

FAQ page:

Screenshot of Business Models Real-Time Notes:

Screenshot, Public Comments on Smithsonian Commons Prototype: 

Screenshot of Commons Prototype – Workspace – Home Page Content: