Is gross national product really the best measure of a nation's performance? Perhaps Bhutan, a tiny country in the heart of the Himalayas that elected its first parliament this past March, has a better answer—"gross national happiness." Bhutan is a land of extraordinary beauty. Most Bhutanese are farmers; teachers, artists, government workers and religious workers, mostly Buddhist, round out the workforce. Bhutan has been ruled by a 100-year-old dynasty of kings. The fourth, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced his abdication in 2006, supporting a democratic electoral process to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy this year.
In 1972, King Wangchuck articulated the idea of gross national happiness as Bhutan's guiding philosophy. In Bhutanese culture that means the achievement of enlightenment for each citizen and for society as a whole. Government is expected to remove the barriers that impede enlightenment—among them environmental destruction, cultural degradation and ignorance. Bhutan has carefully nurtured its forests and protected its wildlife. Tourism is regulated so that it encourages the culture instead of threatening it. Programs in health care and education combine indigenous and outside knowledge. Cultural policies keep the society vital, proud of its traditions and infused with a sense of national identity and service.
Visitors to the National Mall this summer will learn more about Bhutan at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 25-29 and July 2-6. Some 120 Bhutanese monks and musicians, artists and architects, craftspeople and culinary experts will demonstrate their cultural traditions in hundreds of performances and demonstrations. The festival also features programs for the 50th anniversary of NASA and highlights the music and culinary traditions of Texas. Surprisingly, there is a Bhutan-Texas connection. In 1916, after seeing pictures of dzongs, Bhutan's decoratively painted temple fortresses, the wife of a Texas college administrator proposed them as the architectural model for their campus. The result is dzong-style buildings at the University of Texas at El Paso.
I look forward to working with the Smithsonian's new Secretary-designate, G. Wayne Clough (see p. 42), who takes up his duties—including the writing of this column—July 1. I also look forward to returning, as director, to the National Museum of Natural History, greatly enriched by the honor of serving as Acting Secretary for the past 13 months. The experience has confirmed my belief that the remarkable Smithsonian truly touches the lives of millions of people across the United States and around the globe.
Cristián Samper is Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution