By Helen Kyriakoudes
“At the Smithsonian Institution, a new object is digitized every six seconds.” A handwritten letter from Mary Cassatt, the Gemini VIII spacecraft capsule, and a pair of James Brown’s autographed loafers are just a sampling of the more than 5.5 million objects drawn from the nation’s largest museum, education, and research complex.
This ever-expanding trove of resources can be both exciting and daunting. While it includes paintings and artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution’s twenty-nine museums and associated units, there are also articles, blog posts, video, and audio materials drawn from the various institutions under the Smithsonian umbrella. It raises the question – how can an individual researcher, educator, student, or member of the public harness this wealth of information?
The homepage of the Smithsonian Learning Lab invites users to discover, create, share and learn
The answer is the Smithsonian Learning Lab. Created in 2016, this digital learning hub allows users not only to access the millions of Smithsonian resources floating in the cloud, but to use them to build and share original collections and lesson plans that place the Institution’s objects at their center. A user creates a profile and from there can search across the twenty-nine organizations comprising the Smithsonian Institution, saving objects, sorting them into digital “collections,” uploading original materials, and crafting lesson plans that bring the combined resources of the Smithsonian directly into classrooms or living rooms arounds the world. By eschewing a “top-down” approach to museum education, the Learning Lab provides wide-ranging access as it fulfills its mission “to build a global community of learners who are passionate about adding to and bringing to light new knowledge.”
The development of the Learning Lab grew, in part, out of a desire to better connect educators with the full range of the Smithsonian’s digital resources while also creating educational materials that best suited their needs. The site debuted in 2016 after an extensive period of research and development, including three weeks of in-person teacher workshops during which educators tested out site functions and provided feedback to developers as to what would be most helpful in the classroom. By designing the site around what teachers said they needed, the Learning Lab team created a platform that furthers its ultimate goal of educators becoming “active creators and sharers of digital resources personalized for learning in their own classrooms.”
The Learning Lab now has over 6,000 published collections created by both Smithsonian museum staff and members of the public. Places such as the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the National Museum for African American History and Culture use the Learning Lab as a significant piece of their education programming. Smithsonian professional development programs for educators incorporate the tools of the Lab into workshops and seminars. And as activity increases, the Learning Lab staff now host weekly office hours online to field questions and expand collaboration with those using the site.
This summer, I am working remotely with the Learning Lab as a communications and outreach intern. My work includes creating social media content and researching partnerships to expand the lab’s use in classrooms and at home. As part of my work, I’ve spent hours happily scrolling through the materials created by the museums, educators, and students who use the site. The topics range from science to history to the arts, as varied as the museums that line the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One collection explores power and portraiture through works by American painters Kehinde Wiley and Titus Kaphar. Another introduces objects such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” microphone and a Tellatouch braille typewriter as students follow the development of technology over time and ask, “What makes something innovative?”
The “Power and Portraiture” lesson plan from the National Gallery of Art
While exploring this user-created content in the Learning Lab, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of “shared authority” as put forth by public historian Michael Frisch. An often-discussed phrase in museum and cultural heritage circles, the notion of “shared authority” has transformed in meaning in the years since Frisch first examined it in the early 1990s. Frisch interprets shared authority as a noun, a distinct concept acknowledging the inherent power dynamic that exists between institutions and the communities they work with as they present history to the public. Rather than a one-way, directional transfer of information, he describes shared authority as “a more profound sharing of knowledges, an implicit and sometimes explicit dialogue from very different vantages about the shape, meaning, and implications of history.”
The term has since evolved in the public history field, transforming for many from a noun to a verb. Sharing authority is a process of de-centering museums and institutions as the “sole interpreters” of historical narratives, and those who use this evolved meaning strive to empower those with the deepest experience and knowledge to craft the way their histories are told. While the scope of the Learning Lab expands beyond public history into the arts and sciences, this concept is still highly relevant to its work. I find both the noun and the verb interpretations of shared authority useful in my considerations of public history, and see the latter reflected in the Learning Lab’s approach to sharing information. In thinking about how museums and institutions can best serve their publics, I return to questions of access and community engagement.
I see equitable access to information as a crucial starting point for further sharing this authority and the Learning Lab can be a tool in this endeavor. As the world continues to social distance, many museums have opened their doors to visitors digitally, offering a welcome reprieve for those staying at home. It’s now possible to take a virtual stroll through the galleries of the Musée D’Orsay or the National Museum of Natural History – visits that, for many, would not be possible in person even in so-called “normal” times. Similarly, the Learning Lab expands this access to cultural resources. Although it pre-dates the pandemic by four years, the Lab is filling a niche for educators, parents, and caregivers seeking out resources for students who are learning remotely, as well as a means of visiting these institutions via their collections while remaining safely at home.
There are no easy answers and no clear-cut paths towards perfecting the sharing of authority. It would be inaccurate to say that the Learning Lab completely relinquishes all authority to its users, as it ultimately curates the digital objects made available on the site. However, it also provides a framework on which users can build out their own materials. For instance, tools that allow users to upload their own lesson plans, or copy and modify other published collections, ensure that the “implicit and … explicit dialogue” that Frisch observed continues.
Despite these complexities, I see all attempts at expanding access to museums and cultural institutions as steps in the right direction. For the museums and various departments in the Smithsonian Institution, this means offering the public direct access to digitized materials while allowing users to play with and build off of museum interpretations of those items. For educators, it means being able to use those resources to craft Learning Lab collections that best fit their classroom needs. For general users, it means the ability to explore the Smithsonian from the comfort of their own homes, while also creating their own collections from the items they discover. By eliminating as many barriers of entry as possible – distance, cost, and, in 2020, health risk – the Learning Lab takes a step towards making the institution once known as the “nation’s attic” more accessible for all.
Helen Kyriakoudes is an M.A. student in History who is pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate, UMass Amherst. Her 2020 internship was supported with a Charles K. Hyde Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.
“About the Smithsonian Learning Lab: Smithsonian Learning Lab,” Smithsonian Learning Lab. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed July 2, 2020. https://learninglab.si.edu/about.
Frisch, Michael, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.
Frisch, Michael “From ‘A Shared Authority’ to a Digital Kitchen, and Back,” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.
Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. Digital Learning Resources Project, Volume IV: Technical Specifications Document. Washington D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 2012.
 Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, Digital Learning Resources Project, Volume IV: Technical Specifications Document, 3.
 Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990).
 Ibid., xxii.
 Michael Frisch, “From ‘A Shared Authority’ to a Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), pp. 12-127.