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A Passion for Learning

The opportunity to broaden one's horizons at the Smithsonian is a job perk to be relished

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Departures evoke memories and the desire to sum up. This column is a personal retrospective on some of the exhibitions at the Smithsonian that opened new worlds for me during my tenure. Space permits discussion of only a few of many that have broadened my personal knowledge.

I came to the Smithsonian confident that, given prior experience, I could deal comfortably with topics on American history, natural history, American art through 1950, photography and technology. I have enjoyed exhibitions on all these subjects, but much to my delight, I learned the most in areas about which I was least knowledgeable.

Start with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Frankly, contemporary art had largely been a mystery to me. But viewing the work of a stream of contemporary artists has broadened my understanding immensely. I think of artists like Bruce Nauman (whose mixed-media pieces were accompanied by labels explaining his intent), Jeff Wall, Brice Marden, Carlos Alfonzo and Chuck Close. I have also been fortunate to have the expert guidance of Director Jim Demetrion and Hirshhorn curators.

I go next to the Freer and Sackler galleries. Again, my experience with Asian paintings and objects had been minimal. But repeated visits, usually accompanied by Director Milo Beach or curators, have introduced me to a new world. I remember most particularly "The Jewel and the Rose: Art for Shah-Jahan," "King of the World: A Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle" (which I wrote about in October 1997) and "Devi: The Great Goddess."

African art also was a new experience for me. Roslyn Walker, director of the National Museum of African Art, skillfully revealed to me the meaning of African objects through such exhibitions as "Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History," "Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings" and "Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa."

My education has also been enriched in fields that I generally comprehend. American history is the primary subject matter of both the National Museum of American History and the National Portrait Gallery. Both have a number of permanent exhibitions such as "First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image" and the "Hall of Presidents." Among the recent shows at American History, I especially enjoyed "Blue Guitars," "Communities in a Changing Nation: The Promise of 19th-Century America" and "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present." The latter two concern controversial subjects, but both exhibitions were balanced, treating complex events in the context of their times while presenting a glimpse of changes that ensued.

The National Portrait Gallery often presents exhibitions that explore meaningful American phenomena centered on important people. A sampling includes: "Mathew Brady Portraits: Images as History, Photography as Art," "Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century" and "Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen." These installations deepened my understanding of American history.

Exhibitions can stimulate memories and, as with fine drama, produce meaningful emotional responses. Two that strongly affected me were "Red, Hot & Blue: A Salute to American Musicals" (a joint exhibition of NPG and NMAH) and "World War II: Sharing Memories" at American History. I have written about both before in this column, stressing the value of exhibitions that evoke deep nostalgia.

While the examples given suffice to make the point, I want to mention a sampling of exhibitions in other museums that have had considerable impact.

At the National Air and Space Museum: "How Things Fly" (I finally understand the phenomenon), "Space Race" (a chronicle of progress through international competition) and "Enola Gay" (an unwelcome personal lesson in crisis management).

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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