What is trade literature anyway?

Funny you should ask!  The Smithsonian Libraries have one of the most outstanding collections of trade literature in the United States.  Affiliations staff were honored recently to get an up-close, personal view of some samples that were presented by three of the collection’s experts.

Playground equipment cover  What is it?  Trade literature is mass produced by manufacturers to promote and explain their products to wholesalers and retailers.  The Smithsonian’s collection numbers at least 400,000 pieces (it’s still being catalogued!), with the bulk of the collection dating from 1880-1950.  Because this genre of books, pamphlets, brochures, et al, were meant to be discarded (some manufacturers even encouraged an annual purge), the ephemera is quite rare. 

And beautiful.  And surprising.  And revelatory.  The Smithsonian’s seed catalogs feature wildly colorful botanical illustrations.  Some appliance catalogs from the 1950s explain “what women really want,” an illustrative glimpse into social mores of the period.  Floor and wallcovering sample books reveal startlingly modern designs linking them to Art Deco and Bauhaus sensibilities.  World War II era catalogs exemplify how American manufacturers contributed to the war mobilization effort.  Catalogs of turn-of-the-century fountains harken back to Renaissance drawings in their precision. 

Why do we collect this?  Mostly because Smithsonian curators use these to decipher the uses, specifications, and contexts (social/political/economic, among others) of the artifacts in our collection.  It comes in handy for other folks as well;  for example, the National Park Service regularly consults our collection when restoring its historic structures.   Lawyers use it frequently for patent cases.

How can Affiliates use these?  In many ways as it turns out! 
1) Research.  Do you have a 19th century carriage, and want to know more about it?  It’s likely we have the manual that accompanied its distribution.  Same with cameras, automobiles, sewing machines, silos, bicycles, wagons, scientific equipment, on and on and on! 
2) Images.  The wonderful Libraries staff can scan images and send you a high resolution .tif file.  With the proper paperwork, these could serve as graphics in your exhibition or in interpretative & education materials.
3) Loans.  Although rare and fragile, some of the specimens can travel and be exhibited.

I encourage you to explore this fascinating collection further, and as always, never hesitate to ask us questions about it!

Web 2.0

Do you currently use these sites? 

 You Tube   flickr   MySpace  

Are you blogging or podcasting from your site?  If so, you’re navigating Web 2.0. 

An array of Smithsonian webmasters led a fascinating discussion today on the challenges and implications of Web 2.0, which, according to wikipedia (appropriately enough) refers to the newest generation of the web that faciliates greater user interaction in the creation and sharing of content.  Here’s some highlights from the discussion:

Who’s the authority?
  The great fear of many museums – if users are commenting and manipulating our content (collections, images, etc.), how will the public know what’s true?  SI webmasters seemed to be unified in their response to this topic – essentially, who cares?  Michael Edson of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum pointed to the New York Times, in that their site posts letters to the editor right next to articles and editorials.  The American History Museum’s Matt MacArthur highlighted their collection pages, which invite visitors to comment on featured artifacts.  It becomes fairly obvious which voice you’re reading – the Museum’s or its visitors.  Plus, let’s give our visitors the benefit of the doubt in terms of critical thinking!

How will what we do on the web affect our brand?  What’s the differences between our virtual presence, and our bricks & mortar experience?  Guess what?  For younger consumers (say, roughly under 50), there is no difference.  Brand perception is exactly the same whether they are in your building or on your website – they expect both experiences to be great, and identical. 

Super serve your niche.  When asked how to reach people who aren’t accessing your site, the answer was to focus on your core community first.  If your visitors aren’t finding high res images, or lesson plans, or your hours, easily, fix it.  A point that was made consistently was the viral nature of Web 2.0 – the better you are, the more your core, devoted visitors will “tag” you, will blog about you on their own sites, will add you to del.icio.us (look it up!).  Your popularity will grow organically.

Look for yourself!  This is a fun exercise – see (and make sure you know) what people are already saying about you.  You’d be surprised.  Tim Grove, an educator at NASM, shared his experience in finding a video on YouTube about a teen’s boring visit to the Museum!  (there are much better videos about them there too, don’t worry.)  Wonderful pictures from the 2007 Folklife Festival were posted on flickr, some with the guidance of the Smithsonian’s Photography Initiative.  Try looking up “smithsonian affiliate” on any of these sites and you’ll find some great stuff we didn’t even know existed!   

Want to know more?  AAM is all over this, and so are lots of museums.  Check out AAM’s blog, Museum 2.0.  The current issue of Museum News has an article on museums in Second Life, and plenty of articles on the topic.  The Brooklyn Museum gives a good glimpse into some cutting-edge applications (i.e., their visitor video competition on YouTube).  I would also highly recommend Stephen Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software which, among other things, conceptually links the characteristics of Web 2.0 with those of slime molds!

And speaking of user-generated content, what do you think?! 

Update from the Smithsonian’s newest museum

NMAAHC  Kudos to the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the launch of their new website, reviewed today in the Washington Post.  You’ll find details on their collaborations, curricula for teachers, their ambitious Folkways Recordings project, and exhibition and collections planning. 

NMAAHC has several exciting initatives too, including Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative which encourages community participants to look in their attics, closets, and basements and consider the American stories their personal treasures tell.  Read one of Lonnie Bunch’s (the founding director) memories in the Museum’s Virtual Memory Book, a place where web visitors may link their histories, stories, thoughts and ideas to museum offerings as well to memories contributed by other visitors.

Be sure to sign up for electronic updates to keep abreast of the Museum’s exhibitions and programs, and of course, the realization of their physical site on the Mall.

News from Smithsonian Leadership

In light of Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke’s departure, the Smithsonian announced the appointment of two acting Undersecretaries. Richard Kurin, who many affiliates know and love from his Hope Diamond book tour, has been named Acting Undersecretary for History and Culture. In addition to directing the Folklife Center and National Programs (where Affiliations is situated), Richard will also now oversee the National Museum of American History, African-American History and Culture, American Indian, the Anacostia & Postal Museums, and the Latino Center.

Allison McNally has been named Acting Undersecretary for Finance and Administration, overseeing the offices of the chief financial and information officers, human resources, and facilities’ operations. Click here for the full press release. Congratulations to them both!

Acting Secretary Cristián Samper discussed this and more last Friday at the National Press Club. Among the highlights of his talk, he reiterated his priority in rehabilitating the Arts and Industries Building, in reaching an increasingly diverse global population, and in leveraging Smithsonian research to address issues like environmental degradation.  He assured listeners that the Smithsonian is most definitely not in trouble given recent events.  Rather, every crisis presents great opportunity;  in our case, we are currently addressing issues of governance, the role of business ventures, and administrative controls.  Here’s the transcript – Samper speech to Nat’l Press Club

One of his most inspiring quotes was his very last one – “…look for the Smithsonian in your hometown.” Way to go Affiliates!!

Smithsonian Focus newsletter

Smithsonian Focus

Have you seen this?  the Smithsonian’s monthly ‘Focus’ newsletter collects interesting goings-on from around the Institution about collections, events, research, online features and fun factoids.

si focus.jpg  Smithsonian Focus September 2007.htm

This month, I discovered that the Smithsonian owns the collection of (often) specially-commissioned Time magazine covers, now numbering over 2,000 works of art.  Did you also know that the Portrait Gallery has a collection of ‘hedcuts’ – those iconic portraits from the front page of the Wall Street Journal?  Both collections have awesome websites – Cover Art, The Time Collection and Picturing Business in America

Regardless of their scale, the portraits here are poignant, inspirational, sometimes humorous -basically, the essence of great portraiture. (and of the Portrait Gallery itself!)

To sign up for Smithsonian Focus, click here.  and enjoy!


Report from the field: Western Pennsylvania

I just got back from a short but lovely trip to the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania.  SITES’ Booming Out: Mohawk Ironworkers Build New York opened at the California University of Pennsylvania.  As a special treat during the opening ceremonies, LaDonna Harris, trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, spoke to students about ‘Sharing Core Values.’  She was wonderful, and the show looks great.  Congratulations Cal U!

While there, I also visited friends at our Pittsburgh affiliate, the Heinz History Center.  The exhibition team had just come in from repelling one of their walls (the History Center is located in an old ice warehouse) to install a mural complementing the permanent reinstallation of their Clash of Empires exhibition.  (I wish I had a picture of that!! and that I could have tried it myself 🙂 )  They have many other exciting things happening – an exhibition on the Steelers’ 75th Anniversary; the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War; PA’s Quest for Freedom initiative that links underground railroad sites statewide; and what sounds like a super fun ‘Night at the Museum’ sleepover party for families, inspired by the Ben Stiller movie.  Check them out at www.pghhistory.org.

western PA 007.jpg         western PA 018.jpg 
LaDonna Harris          Fun directional signage @ Heinz