The Virtual Smithsonian

"Creating a broadband Virtual Museum"

Michael J. Tuttle, Asa Baylus, Katherine Cornelius
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA
{ tuttlem, baylusa, corneliusk }


The Virtual Smithsonian takes the content organized for the "Smithsonian’s 150th Anniversary traveling exhibition, America’s Smithsonian", and adds substantial additional material from our archives; culminating in an Interactive experience spanning 7 gigabytes of data. Staff within the Smithsonian’s museums and programs have graciously contributed supplementary material and interpretation.

The site itself focuses on stories which explain and interpret approximately 360 of the Smithsonian’s most compelling artifacts. Featuring contextual exhibits within the framework of the exhibition’s three-tier hierarchy: Discovering, Imagining, and Remembering and further subdivided into 32 galleries, the site is built as an exploratory experience and therefore is more reminiscent of the traditional exhibits physical space. 

The Virtual Smithsonian is designed  as a fully integrated museum web site which utilizes commercial software to produce an interactive broadband educational experience. It anticipates the look and feel of the Internet as hi-speed connectivity matures and sites aggressively link good design with sophisticated multimedia.

The concept of broadband is widely heralded in news and trade journals. Though a high-speed line already makes surfing the Internet a more rewarding experience, the Virtual Smithsonian has been specifically designed to demonstrate it's benefits to  the user and to the developer alike. Museums are naturals for providing this service due to their inherently rich content.


The resulting broadband site is rich in interactivity. Each Gallery has been designed to capture the theme of the original America's Smithsonian developers in a way which appeals to the Internet user.  The site demonstrates the ability to take images of artifacts and zoom in to startling detail, making the study of paintings, insects, shells, minerals, and the like possible in ways which could not be accomplished by a physical visit to the museum.

Artifacts can also be studied in three-dimensional form. Various video and audio clips conceptualize and augment the experience. For several artifacts we have added the ability to “morph” from one state to another, allowing the student or user, for example, to watch Abraham Lincoln progressively age from a young man into his last photograph  just prior his death -- or to compare a painting and a photograph of the same scene.

Example of ZOOM Technology

Figure 1: Detail of an artifact using ZOOM technology.

Example of pictures used for creating QTVR Objects

Figure 2: Three Images from a 3-D object.  Thirty-six photographs were taken of the artifact and then stitched together using QuickTime VR.  The user can then scroll over the object and view from all sides.

Technology Hurdles

While designing a site of this caliber, our team encountered many problems and solutions, which we believe, will help others who are currently  tackling similar projects.  Some of the areas in which we experienced technological hurdles are: browser incompatibility; minimum hardware and software requirements; and, database integration. 

The next step was to make sure that the site was as user-friendly as possible.  Prior to entrance, new visitors are guided through a series of plug-in tests.  Step by step instructions are provided to assist users in familiarizing themselves with the user interface and technology.

To insure compatibility across as broad a spectrum as is possible, we have created a low bandwidth version of The Virtual Smithsonian.  The low bandwidth site is populated with reduced video and audio clips and users do not need plug-ins etc.

In producing the site, we have achieved a diffusion of knowledge and heightened awareness of broadband content and its ramifications upon the web design community.