On May 30, 1899, a struggling young inventor wrote the Smithsonian Institution asking for help: “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”
Wilbur Wright received a letter back dated June 2 that year with recommended readings on “aerial navigation”—certainly a quick turnaround for the time. Had Wright made the same request today, he would likely have done so online, where the response is virtual and virtually instantaneous, mining vastly greater depths of information than anything available then.
Smartphone apps take learning to the next step by making rich information and communication available to patrons on their fingertips. Museums can capture the ideas and imagination of individuals and can help in attracting people of all ages during the time when public participation in the arts is downward.
When it comes to large spaces, visitors could feel bogged down due to the exceeding amount of exhibitions. Smartphone apps can play a pivotal role by helping visitors find what they want to see in the limited time they have and help them navigate within the application itself.
Wilbur Wright’s letter, wrinkled and stained with age, is now one of millions of artifacts in the Smithsonian’s online collection—a talisman of the transition from the mechanical to the information age. It stands as a monument and an urgent reminder. “We’re only at the beginning of this wave of technology, and it’s really going to dominate our approach to learning in the next few decades,” says Smithsonian Secretary Emeritus G. Wayne Clough. “We’ll learn how to do it better. And if you sit around and wait until it’s already happened, it will be too late.”