Every organization, every discipline, dreams. When we close our eyes, we picture ourselves practicing our craft at the peak of excellence: teaching, provoking, spreading joy, having profound impact in our communities. But even dreams have limits, based on our experience of what is possible. Dreams come in different types and sizes. Different scales.

Our industry, museums, forged our dreams in the 20th century when being successful meant having impressive buildings full of experts, big collections and visitors through the doors. That was our reality. There was no Internet yet, and we could imagine no other type of success. In that world, we dreamt about things like bigger, better buildings, rock-star curators, preeminent collections and more visitors.

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The East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, opened in 1978 with 4.6 million annual visits. It has roughly the same level of visitation today. Is that the fulfillment of a big dream? How you answer that question depends on what you think the mission of that institution is and how you think about scale, but either way, zero percent audience growth and incremental improvements in facilities, collections and staffing over 35 years reveal a question about whether we are using the best dreams to shape and implement our missions.

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The TED conference has served over a billion videos since 2006, the year they started a small experiment to put videos online. They tried it, it seemed to work, so they tried some more, and now they have delivered a billion videos. The TED team didn’t do anything that a museum couldn’t have done—no aspect of TED’s strategy, tactics or operations requires huge teams or huge budgets, and even the TED motto, “Ideas worth spreading,” is hauntingly museumesque. But their vision, their sense of their role—their responsibility, their obligation—in the world of the 21st century is clear, as is their understanding of scale.

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The National Gallery of Art would have to operate for 217 years to have a billion visitors, but is a TED talk as good as a museum visit? Is any online experience as good? There’s a lot of doubt among museum leaders that online experiences can be as authentic, as impactful, as a visit to a museum. But try Googling “TED talk made me cry” and then read Art Museums and the Public, a 2001 report by the Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis, which concludes:

One of the most striking results of this generation-worth of museum audience studies is that the explicit aims of exhibition planners are rarely achieved to any significant degree. In study after study… researchers found that the central goals of the exhibition team (which are usually learning goals) were rarely met for more than half of the visitors, except in those cases where most visitors entered the museum already possessing the knowledge that the museum wanted to communicate.

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It isn’t this amazing, contemplative, aesthetic, transcendent experience. It’s jostling crowds, it’s feeling hungry, it’s being annoyed by the people you’re with sometimes, it’s feeling disappointed that you can’t have the reaction that the museum wants you to have— that you don’t have the knowledge and the background to get there. I mean, it’s a whole range of complicated things.

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Beth Harris, and her collaborator, art historian Steven Zucker, attended the Future of Education convening. Beth and Steven reach 200 students a semester through the traditional practice of teaching art history in their classrooms, but this semester they’ll reach 2 million learners from 200 countries through their open educational resource, Smarthistory. The Khan Academy, a free, online educational website of which Smarthistory is a part, reaches 10 million learners a month. MIT’s Open Courseware project served 100 million people in its first decade, and their goal is to reach 1 billion learners in the next 10 years.

Our dreams drive us forward. Museums accomplish wonderful things in society, but a billion learners—that’s the kind of dream we need to have.


By Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy, Office of the CIO, Smithsonian Institution.

Michael Edson is the director of Web and new media strategy in the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of the CIO. He has worked on numerous award-winning projects and has been involved in practically every aspect of technology and new media for museums. Edson helped create the Smithsonian’s first blog, “Eye Level,” and the first alternative reality game to take place in a museum, “Ghosts of a Chance.” He is an O’Reilly Foo Camp veteran and serves on the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open GLAM advisory board. He was named a “Tech Titan: Person to Watch” by Washingtonian magazine

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