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Smithsonian Perspectives

Smithsonian Perspectives

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To carry out the Smithsonian's mission for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge," the Institution engages in three major activities: research, education and collections management. Collections are central and pose some of our most challenging problems. Situations differ from museum to museum, but certain themes emerge: selection criteria for growth or reduction, funds for acquisition, storage and conservation, and accessibility.

Our collections number some 140 million items. More than 122 million, or 88 percent, are natural history objects, artifacts and specimens, including 30 million insects plus about 5,000 living animals at the National Zoological Park. About 12 percent are objects of cultural and technological history, including 13 million postage stamps.

Each museum at the Smithsonian faces particular issues, and what may be a problem at one museum in no way shapes the fortunes of another. For example, the Freer Gallery of Art, which originated with Charles Lang Freer's 1906 bequest of 9,000 objects, has more than tripled its collection through acquisitions. But Freer's bequest dictates strict criteria for acquisitions and display. No Freer Gallery object may ever be exhibited outside the museum, and only objects from the Freer collection may be exhibited within the museum. The Freer allows acquisitions of Asian art but not American art. The museum possesses state-of-the-art conservation facilities and excellent storage areas, and is fortunate to have sufficient acquisition funds.

Money for acquisitions, however, is a major problem at the African Art and American Art museums. Both need to expand their collections but must compete with other museums and collectors to purchase significant objects. Moreover, each faces skyrocketing prices in the art market. The Institution allocates limited acquisition funds, but these never stretch far. At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden there is a growing endowment for acquisitions, but deciding what to acquire can be difficult. Fortunately, the museum has a talented curatorial staff that has a reputation for picking the best in contemporary art.

Dealing with storage and conservation is an ongoing challenge for our Natural History, Air and Space, and American History museums. At Natural History acquisition funds are rarely a problem, and more specimens are offered than accepted, but cataloguing, storing, conserving and electronically recording the huge collections are enormous tasks. Our natural history collection is the world's largest and most comprehensive. Each year we lend almost 200,000 objects and specimens to nearly every state in the Union and more than 70 countries, usually for scientific study. As the rate of extinction accelerates, our responsibility for collecting, identifying and sharing our knowledge of the world's flora and fauna increases.

To help solve Natural History's collection-management problems, the Museum Support Center opened in 1983. Built in Suitland, Maryland, at a cost of $29 million, the Support Center offers a high-tech, half-million-square-foot storage- and-conservation facility 30 minutes from the Mall.

Next door, ground was broken for the National Museum of the American Indian's Cultural Resources Center. Over the next five years almost a million items must be moved from storage in New York City to Suitland. Air and Space does not have as many objects, but many are large and expensive to restore. The ultimate solution is the 700,000-square-foot Dulles Center, which is scheduled to open in 2001 and will give the general public access, in person and electronically, to the collections and their restoration.

The National Museum of American History presents multiple challenges: it has little money for acquisitions, yet must document recent history; large objects (locomotives and industrial machinery) create storage and conservation demands; and, like all our museums, it needs an effective collection information system. A tentative agreement with the Bethlehem Steel Corporation to lend hundreds of artifacts for display in a proposed new museum of industrial history in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (see Saving American Steel), is the beginning of what I hope will be a nationwide program to share the Smithsonian's collections with cities across America.

Clearly, digital imaging offers one of the best means to provide high-quality documentation to those using the collections. Such technology will enable greater access to them, but funding requirements are enormous.

The Smithsonian collections, like our research and exhibitions, remind us that the Smithsonian is more than the sum of its parts. We come to understand the challenges of the Institution as a whole as well as those of its constituent parts, and seek resolutions that allow us to bring our rich collections to the largest possible audience.

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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