How Do Smithsonian Curators Decide What to Collect?

The Star Spangled Banner and John Glenn’s spacesuit were clearly musts. Other artifacts are less obvious

To underscore the transitory nature of material life, Tibetan monks poured their mandala into the Potomac. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
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After the 9/11 attacks, 20 Tibetan Buddhist monks came to the Smithsonian to help America heal. By making a sand mandala. For days they created colorful lines and intricate patterns by putting down sand—a few grains at a time, in many bright hues—on a large wood platform in the Sackler Gallery. The result was an astonishingly beautiful sand painting. After two weeks, expressing their belief that material life is transitory, the monks swept up the sand and poured it into the Potomac; curators respected their decision, despite the fact that a basic Smithsonian mandate is to preserve valuable artifacts forever. The Institution's history, art and culture collections connect us to our nation's past, identity and creative spirit—and to the world's diverse cultures. Our scientific specimens increase understanding of our planet's formation and biodiversity. New DNA testing makes our biological specimens ever more valuable as they enter the world's genetic database, and DNA barcoding makes rapid identification of species possible.

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How do our curators decide what to collect? The Star-Spangled Banner, Thomas Edison's light bulb, Joe Louis' boxing gloves and John Glenn's spacesuit were clearly musts. Other artifacts are less obvious. In 2001, curators interviewed Julia Child. Standing in her kitchen, they realized its significance and asked for its entire contents. Two months later, 55 boxes and crates arrived. The Julia Child kitchen exhibit is now one of our most popular (see The Smithsonian's Recovering Voices program collaborates with indigenous communities to document and sustain the world's endangered languages. Among other collections, the program draws on countless audio recordings and our collection of Native American language manuscripts—the world's largest. The National Portrait Gallery's collection of celebrity caricatures from the 1920s and '30s gives us a glimpse into that era's popular culture and its attitudes about mass- media-generated fame, public identity, race and gender.

The Smithsonian's collections transport us back millions of years to humanity's beginnings, and far beyond. The Allende meteorite, formed 4.56 billion years ago, is the world's oldest known natural specimen—and the oldest object at the Smithsonian. It contains diamonds from dozens of supernovas and amino acids that could have provided the raw materials for early life forms. We'll certainly keep it forever, as we will photographs and other documentation of the marvelous 9/11 mandala.

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution


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