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Smithsonian Perspectives

From the start, the Smithsonian has pursued activities that fulfill its mandate to increase knowledge

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Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, would be surprised if he were to revisit the Mall today and see the complex of museums representing the institution he had so much to do with establishing. He reluctantly accepted responsibility for the collections assembled under government auspices in various official exploring expeditions, such as that of Comdr. Charles Wilkes to the South Seas. But he feared that "filling a costly building with an indiscriminate collection of objects of curiosity, and giving these in charge to a set of inactive curators," would dull the research edge of an institution founded for the primary purpose of advancing knowledge and, secondarily, of disseminating that newly acquired knowledge.

Henry had successfully resisted efforts to transform the Smithsonian into the national library, turning over the bulk of the Institution's collections to the then small Library of Congress. In the process he had to fire the distinguished librarian Charles Coffin Jewett and then weather a tough Congressional investigation before he made the decision stick. Henry believed that a great nation should have a great national library, but he believed that it should not be at the expense of an institution, unique in its day, dedicated to the advancement of knowledge.

Joseph Henry had no animus against the collection of objects, so long as it contributed toward meeting that goal. The first publication of the Smithsonian Institution was a study of the archaeological remains of an early Indian civilization in the Ohio Valley, which Henry personally purged of its speculative aspects, insisting that its authors limit themselves to verifiable, incontrovertible facts. To that end the Smithsonian sponsored expeditions to Alaska (then in Russian hands) and to the Western territories of the United States in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson's sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition earlier in the century. The investigators were to collect data on native inhabitants, geography, geology, flora and fauna, and the like, so that a better understanding of these regions could be achieved. This often meant collecting objects to be analyzed later at the Institution and disseminating the data in Smithsonian publications. Yet Henry continued to worry that the accumulation of materials collected by Smithsonian researchers would require increased space, time and money to preserve. So he urged a process of distributing objects, once they had served their primary purpose, to smaller museums and historical societies for educational and documentational purposes.

Fortunately, in my view, Henry was not able to limit the growth of Smithsonian museums as he had the earlier library. Having accepted an appropriation from the federal government to take charge of the museum of the United States in 1857, he was in less of a position to halt the process when collections began to pour in during the latter half of the century. He was in an even weaker position when the Smithsonian received objects donated by foreign and domestic exhibitors following the centennial celebration of 1876, in Philadelphia. The objects, he noted, amounted "in bulk [to] four times the space of the present Smithsonian edifice" and created "a crisis in the history of the Smithsonian." Henry never was able to resolve the dilemma. He died in 1878 and was succeeded as Secretary by his "assistant in the department of natural history," Spencer Fullerton Baird.

Baird, the quintessential museum man, was a distinguished scholar in natural history, and his publications list of what were mostly taxonomic studies fills an entire volume. He had been in charge of the U.S. Government's participation in the centennial celebration and welcomed the accession of objects to the Smithsonian's collections after the exhibition's close. He then persuaded Congress to fund a second Smithsonian building, the old National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building), to house them. Joseph Henry's death and Spencer Baird's succession to the secretaryship marked the end of all restraints on the development of the collections and the accompanying museums to house them.

Since that time, dynamic tension between the research, collecting and educational activities of the Smithsonian has been a continuing theme within the Institution, as successive Secretaries have promoted now one, and now the other. These activities, rightly balanced, can legitimately express the ideal of the founder of the Institution, but improperly pursued, they can result in conflict and carry the Institution away from its mandate to increase knowledge.

My own feeling, coming from a great research and teaching institution - the University of California - that did not exist when the Smithsonian was founded, is that the advancement of knowledge is a sacred trust to which we continue to be obligated. The fulfillment of this responsibility through properly directed collecting, research and educational activities seems to me to be in keeping with Joseph Henry's vision for the Smithsonian, as well as James Smithson's. It is a responsibility that I take seriously and hope to carry out in my own administration of the Institution in the coming years.

By I. Michael Heyman

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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