In a new e-book published this year, Clough called on museums to speed up their work to innovate and digitize collections to make artifacts accessible for a generation born in the Internet age.
A strategic plan in 1927 once called for the Smithsonian to have an office in every state so it could reach more people, though that never came to pass. Now with more digital outreach, the museums could actually realize that dream, Clough said, with the potential to reach billions of people.
"If we look at this issue of reaching people, it's more important than ever before," Clough said, noting that museum visitation among minorities is already low. For museums that received government funding to get their start, he said governments are now saying "what's next?"
"What's next is you have to reach the schools," Clough said. "Your relevance is going to be really based in part on how much you're contributing to the educational process for young people."
While posting data online to easily replicate important artifacts might lead to some attempts to counterfeit objects to sell, Smithsonian officials said the data is provided only for educational and non-commercial use.
Other museums have also started digitizing artworks or making 3D scans of sculptures. In New York, digital guru Sree Sreenivasan was hired this year as the first chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Smithsonian officials said they are making a unique push into scanning a wide variety of 3D objects, ranging from an ancient whale fossil found in Chile to a 3D image of a supernova in space.
Some of the latest 3D technology also could transform the experience of visiting a museum. The Smithsonian is experimenting with new projections of augmented reality with 3D imagery to help bring dinosaurs or historical figures to life in an exhibit.
"Wouldn't it be great to have Abraham Lincoln walking around talking to people?" Clough said. "It can be done."
Smithsonian 3D Program: http://3d.si.edu/
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