Arts Desk

Mall Cop: Will the Smithsonian’s David Skorton Balance Science, Technology, and the Arts?

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In October 2011, Nicholas Pyenson, a curator for marine-mammal fossils at the Smithsonian Institution, made a dramatic discovery in Chile: dozens of ancient whale fossils, unearthed as a result of construction to expand the Pan-American Highway. As Smithsonian Magazine explained in a 2012 feature, the find was an especially sensitive one. The fossils had to be cleared right away, before the road was widened over the ancient whale burial ground.

Paleontologists were alarmed by the idea of disinterring the whales. Removing the skeletons from the sediment in which they fossilized would separate them from the context and clues that might help scientists solve the mystery surrounding this great whale die-off. So they recruited an unlikely and perhaps unprecedented ally to help them preserve the entire lot: digital fabricators from the Smithsonian.

The digital preservation of the Chilean site that locals had come to call Cerro Ballena (“Whale Hill”) is the first major breakthrough in the Smithsonian Institution’s aggressive digitization push. Thanks in part to 3D-scanning laser technology, Pyenson and colleagues were able to reveal last month that a lethal algal bloom was the most likely culprit in the baleen whales’ deaths. It gets better: The Smithsonian published its digital models online, meaning you can 3D-print your own scale model of the 11 million-year-old fossil as it previously appeared in an Atacama Desert bed. And in a first for the museum world, the Smithsonian plans to install a 3D-printed 26-foot-long fossil of the whale in the National Museum of Natural History.

You might say that the last 11 million years of history have led to the selection of technocrat David Skorton as the next Secretary of the Smithsonian. Skorton—who will succeed G. Wayne Clough as secretary in June 2015—joins at pivotal moment in the evolutions of both the Smithsonian and Cornell University, where he’s currently president. He recently ushered in one of the university’s crowning achievements: Last December, then–New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg granted 12 acres on Roosevelt Island to the institution to serve as the home for Cornell Tech, a new graduate hub for applied sciences and research. In Washington, Skorton will guide not only the continued digitization of 14 million objects in the Smithsonian’s holdings but the transformation of the way Smithsonian researchers, curators, and administrators approach their work. He will also lead the Smithsonian’s visual-arts and cultural centers—whose standings in the overall hierarchy have slipped in recent years.

The Smithsonian is standing tall with regard to its digitization strategy right now. But there may be growing pains ahead for Skorton and the institution. Before his first day on the job, he has pledged to restore the Smithsonian’s focus on the arts alongside science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That would give Skorton a leg up over Clough, who censored an artwork in 2010 amid conservative pressure. And in fact, it may be crucial for ensuring that the Smithsonian finds the right path as it chases the digital frontier.

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Pale-blue miniature figurines are mostly what we talk about when we talk about 3D printing. Never mind that you can now scan and print 3D objects at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown. The question is: Why would you ever want to?

As part of its digitization efforts, the Smithsonian is investing mightily in 3D-printing and -scanning technology. So has Cornell under Skorton—whose tenure can be partially measured by the most progressive digital research center outside MIT. Last year, students led by mechanical and aerospace engineering professor (and worldwide digital-manufacturing expert) Hod Lipson printed a fully functioning loudspeaker—using silver ink to create a conductive coil and strontium ferrite to generate a magnet. Printing a working speaker system portends the kind of possibilities that the Makerbot company is hoping to seize upon with its Replicator line of desktop 3D printers. Yet at the recent Bloomberg Businessweek Design conference in San Francisco, Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis told an audience that most people were using his Replicators to 3D-print whatever stock designs came with the printer.

Plus, consumers don’t yet know where they should be digitally printing their out-of-the-box plastic sculpturettes. D.C.’s central library is a late entrant in a field that will soon be dominated by retail giants Amazon and Walmart. Amazon expects digital manufacturing to transform both the supply and demand sides of the retail experience. While it has opened a pilot storefront for 3D-printed goods, it’s looking ahead to selling schematic files for products—foregoing warehouse-stockpiles and drone-delivery for some goods altogether. Walmart, meanwhile, prefers to think of 3D-printing as a service that customers will take advantage of while they’re in the stores purchasing non-printable goods such as groceries—the way pharmacy customers once dropped off film for processing.

Researchers at Cornell, well ahead of the curve, treated a reporter from the New York Times to a fully printed meal, from plates and utensils to pizza and panna cotta. (Lipson even printed a tie for the reporter to wear to the table.) There may yet be more printable things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in either Amazon or Walmart’s philosophy.

Enter Skorton and the Smithsonian: One has the institutional experience to realize an unlikely dream—namely the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, which will not be fully complete until 2037. The other is a treasury of limitless imagination—but only if leaders consider all 19 Smithsonian museums.

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While Congress has yet to act on it, the Smithsonian asked for a $2.6 million increase in its fiscal year 2014 budget request for digitization and Web initiatives. This, alongside a $25 million ask for increased science, technology, engineering, and mathematics engagement, makes up about one-third of the Smithsonian’s salary and expense requests.

It falls on the secretary to come up with even more. If Skorton’s experience guiding a cutting-edge technology and research university is one reason he got the gig at the Smithsonian, his talent for fundraising for the same is another. Since he arrived at Cornell in 2006, Skorton has been leading a $4.75 billion capital campaign for the university that is planned to run through 2015. Last year, Skorton, who received $865,331 in 2011 (Clough is paid $542,000 per year), announced another campaign to raise $2 billion for Cornell Tech. (Cornell embarked on a building spree starting in 2001 that saw it open 1.8 million new square feet, spending $900 million on construction. Currently, the university is strapped with debt it incurred in order to ride out the recession.)

Skorton could very well outdo Clough at fundraising, one of the outgoing secretary’s greatest strengths. Over the course of Clough’s nearly six-year term, the Smithsonian has raised $893 million in private contributions, including a record-setting $223 million in 2012. The Castle may well reach Clough’s stated goal of $1 billion by his retirement later this year.

It’s not getting any easier to score appropriations from a recalcitrant and gridlocked Congress, which leaves it to the Smithsonian to find its own way. The situation has sometimes led past secretaries, most notably former Secretary Lawrence Small, to seek unsavory corporate alliances. (Consider the “Smithsonian on Demand” initiative, launched in 2006, that put archival research and scholarship from across the Smithsonian into the semiexclusive hands of Showtime.) Skorton, the fifth president among Ivy League leaders to leave his ivory tower since 2012 (and also the youngest of them), has convinced the right people along the way of his vision for the future. (Namely, Mayor Bloomberg.)

So Skorton—like Clough before him—has the institutional experience to keep the Smithsonian’s fundraising streak going. But if Skorton intends to fully realize Clough’s vision of a more digitally oriented Smithsonian, he’ll need to come up with his own answers to questions vexing universities, venture capitalists, and digital startups from the Northeast corridor to Silicon Valley. Is a MOOC—the increasingly popular, free, online higher-education courses—something that the Smithsonian should embrace or resist? How can people use digital manufacturing, if it’s not for 3D-printing plastic tchotchkes?

Printing out artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collections—say, President Lincoln’s life mask, already offered online—is an answer to the one question. And that’s neat enough. But it’s not inspiring like custom-printed aortic valves (another project by Lipson) or a fully articulated gown printed to fit Dita Von Teese (by Shapeways). In the end, printing Lincoln’s life mask is an afterthought compared to seeing the real thing. That goes for most of the 14 million objects the Smithsonian seeks to digitize.

While it won’t be the Smithsonian’s job to guide how markets eventually embrace 3D printing, the Castle could easily corner the market on the business of 3D inspiration. That might mean diverting or rethinking some of the capital that the Smithsonian devotes to STEM toward museums that have taken the back seat in terms of institutional priority. What sculptors do with 3D printing will help to ensure that there’s an audience for scientists who will brook many failures before they reach a single success. (And anyway, what sculptors do with 3D printing is an area of interest for the Smithsonian in and of itself.)

Thinking purely within the confines of this digital arms race, there are ways to inspire people that contribute to all of the Smithsonian’s goals—and make use of all 19 different institutions. Rhizome, a digital-art organization based in New York’s New Museum, currently runs an annual workshop, Seven on Seven, that pairs leading artists with technologists just to see what the hell they come up with. Each year, the process matters more than the results. The Smithsonian could do the same thing on a larger scale. Thinking still larger, the Smithsonian could inaugurate a Tech Life Festival—a SXSW Interactive minus the horrifying corporate overculture, a diverse and woman-friendly conference geared not toward TED Talk–loving glassholes but the family of four from Idaho.

Skorton seems to get it: As he told media at a press conference announcing his appointment, he sees his goal as “working with the leaders of arts and culture in Washington to emphasize the importance of these disciplines to the public interest, touching the lives of Americans and beyond.” His vision, he says, is broad: “we will not solve our toughest problems...through science alone.” With any luck, he understands art better than his predecessor.

But insofar as the Smithsonian is going to chase digitization no matter what, it should do so the right way—by emphasizing culture as a conduit for technology, not vice versa. A 26-foot-long 3D-printed baleen whale fossil sounds like the way to get the National Museum of Natural History involved. Now what about the Hirshhorn, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture? Perhaps the first thing that Skorton could print up is a tent big enough for the whole Smithsonian.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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