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From accidental to intentional

The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 with a mission devoted to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” With over 19 museums, 9 libraries and 9 research centres (most of which are free to the public), across topics in art, history, science and culture, the Smithsonian had come to occupy an iconic and important role in American society.

After more than a century and a half of amazing successes in America and the wider world, the Smithsonian began a strategic planning effort in 2009 in order to examine how to remain vital and relevant in the 21st century and beyond. Coming out of that effort was an interesting observation: The Smithsonian had one of the most beloved brands in the nation – by accident – and that beloved brand was starting to collect some dust.

At this critical inflection point of self-assessment, the Institution decided it was time to be more intentional – in defining their brand, in contemporizing their mission, and in connecting with younger, more diverse audiences in more places – both in and outside of Washington DC. The opportunity was to help make the Smithsonian more relevant, to more people, more of the time.

From knowledge to learning: the Smithsonian learning curve

We began with a hypothesis that while ‘Knowledge’ is the foundation of the Smithsonian’s mission, in order to be more accessible and relevant, they needed to connect their mission to the idea of ‘Learning’ – a much more dynamic and personal concept implying first-hand experience beyond static facts and figures.

We worked with the Smithsonian to pull apart into this hypothesis – internally and externally. We performed quantitative research to uncover current perceptions of the Smithsonian, as well as ethnographic research to help us understand the different ways people learn – and the sources and resources they turn to in that process. In addition, we talked to experts from a wide range of related fields, conducted multiple internal focus groups and studied macrotrends related to knowledge and learning.

What we learned was consistent – Knowledge is a concept stuck in a textbook, it’s academic and inert, whereas Learning is an active, unending process. It’s part of being alive and being human. The tie between the two is experience – it’s what transforms static knowledge into dynamic learning, which in turn leads to new knowledge in the world. While this concept was subtle (and linguistic on the surface), it had big implications for the Smithsonian and their mission.

Exciting the learning in everyone

From this insight, we started developing ideas to encapsulate the Smithsonian’s future-facing purpose – a strategy that would intentionally keep the Institution relevant and at the forefront of contemporary learners everywhere. They needed an idea that would energize the over 6,000 volunteers and 6,000 employees that continue to dedicate their life’s work to the Institution.

After an incredible amount of collaboration and iteration, hands-on workshops with groups across the organization and vetting – from the Secretary to the security guards – we arrived at a powerful brand idea. Exciting the Learning in Everyone became that internal mantra – one that succinctly defined their contemporary goals as an institution and also established a consistent filter for future actions and decisions.

We then translated this idea into a set of talking points to ensure their story and vision could be communicated consistently and concisely. We also helped them craft a consumer-facing tagline, “Seriously Amazing,” a phrase designed to capture people’s attention and invite them to take another look.

Putting ideas to action

In adherence with our observations around knowledge versus learning, we developed an internal implementation plan to ensure the entire organization not only understood the brand idea as a concept, but also began working with that strategy to demonstrate it’s application.

Alongside the internal brand rollout team, we created customized brand filters by department – practical applications of the brand idea to assist with every day decision-making in order to collectively change the behaviours and (ultimately) perception of the institution.

Since its in introduction in December 2011—the brand idea has inspired employees to launch a number of initiatives to move the institution from a repository of knowledge to a dynamic center for learning.

A few examples:
— Smithsonian Quests – an interactive program where students learn inside the museums and out, get connected to experts and earn badges for their art, history, culture and science projects
— 3d.si.edu, where online visitors can not only see artifacts online – but also rotate them to view their every angle or print them out in 3-D.
— The extension of the Smithsonian’s K-12 teacher tools – with over 165,000 teachers using the free resources (from apps to lesson plans) to improve students' critical thinking skills
— Q?rius the new educational space at the Natural History Museum designed to connect tweens and teens to science. The interactive environment uses more than 6,000museum objects and the personal passion of researchers to spark discovery.
— Its multiple crowdsourcing initiatives like The Smithsonian Transcription Center - which works with digital volunteers to transcribe historic documents and collection records to facilitate research and make the collections more accessible

With the incredible breadth of knowledge and depth of commitment of the Smithsonian’s people - united and inspired to “excite the learning of everyone” – this is just the beginning of what’s to come.