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Smithsonian Perspectives

Among the Smithsonian's greatest legacies has been its long line of directors with vision and drive

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For those of us who have the privilege of working at the Smithsonian, our 150th-anniversary year has been a season of many pleasures. Chief among these has been the opportunity to send out across the nation in our "America's Smithsonian" exhibition some of the greatest of treasures we hold in trust for the American people.

The organizing of that Smithsonian-wide exhibition coincided with my first year at the Institution and served as a kind of crash course for me. Because the entire Smithsonian was to be involved, I needed to learn quickly how the individual museums fulfilled their responsibilities to the collections under their care.

What impressed me from the first was the passion the directors of the Smithsonian museums brought to their task. Each of them an expert in a different field and charged with a different mission, they were required to be pragmatists and visionaries at the same time, able to run a tight ship but steer by the stars.

I think of this now because we have recently lost a colleague and friend who stood among the finest of Smithsonian directors, Sylvia Williams of the National Museum of African Art. Her sudden death shocked us into an awareness of how central a figure she had become here and how much we had counted on her not only to lead her museum but also to set a standard for the balancing act we ask all our directors to manage.

Sylvia Williams might have remained a great curator, honing her scholarship at the Brooklyn Museum, but in 1983 she took on the task of guiding the relocation of a once-private museum launched by its founding director, Warren Robbins, to its present site on the National Mall. There she built with her staff a preeminent collection and exhibition program of world renown. She was a feisty director whose strength of character infused her museum and brought it to greatness.

So much of what the Smithsonian has become in its 150-year history is the result of the strength of its finest directors of museums and research centers. And yet it is amazing how often they are overlooked in the telling of that history, crowded out by the great donors and the parade of Secretaries.

If the directors of the Smithsonian have a patron saint, it would have to be Spencer Baird, who, in his years as director of the National Museum, made the Smithsonian's collections as fundamental to its purpose as was pure research. It was Baird who found ways to collect despite the hesitations of the then Secretary, Joseph Henry. Among his remarkable strategies was the acquisition of some 42 freight cars' worth of exhibits from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. To house this material, Baird was able to acquire the land and appropriation for the National Museum building, today called Arts and Industries.

In the first half of the 20th century, another of the remarkable Smithsonian builders, Paul Garber, showed how a Smithsonian museum could be virtually willed into existence. Garber launched his 72-year association with the Smithsonian in 1920 as "preparator" of exhibits at the National Museum, then went on to become the first head of Aeronautics. In 1946 his pleas to Senator Jennings Randolph led to the creation of the National Air Museum, and the ultimate creation of facilities to house the scores of aircraft he had collected. Never called a director, he was one in the fundamental sense of having shaped the direction of his museum.

Some of the greatest of our directors arrived not at the birth of an organization but when it was languishing. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) was all but moribund when Fred Whipple was asked to take it over in 1955. He oversaw its relocation to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and soon gained it world recognition as a tracking network for the new age of satellites, beginning with Sputnik. Whipple later set about getting the SAO its first major ground-based observatory, which was sited in southern Arizona and later renamed in his honor. He can be credited with setting the SAO on its course as a great astrophysical center.

Whipple's 18 years at the SAO were more than matched by Theodore Reed's 28 years at the National Zoo, another case of a director who coaxed a sleepy part of the Institution to new life. Reed was among the first of our directors to realize the power of citizens awakened to important needs. In 1956, he formed the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), which has become a bedrock of support. It was Reed who expanded the role of the zoo to vital research in veterinary science and the study of animal behavior.

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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