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Smithsonian Perspectives

As part of our 150th-anniversary celebration, we're going to take 150 museum treasures on the road

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When I took up my responsibilities as the tenth Secretary of the Smithsonian in the fall of 1994, as a longtime Californian I brought the perspective of someone who had lived most of his life far away from Washington, D.C.

As a result, I knew from experience what so many other Americans feel about this wonderful Institution. We take pride in it, we want to share its treasures with our children; but it's a long journey to Washington, whether we live more than a day's ride away or across thousands of miles. Many of us get to the Smithsonian only at one point in our lives, often when visiting with our family or classmates.

So, I decided that a principal goal as Secretary would be to make this group of museums and research centers as accessible to as many people as possible, wherever they live. Central to that strategy is my commitment to the electronic transformation of the Smithsonian, which I have written about in an earlier column. Since our home page went on-line May 8 (through the World Wide Web) with more than 20 hours of Smithsonian images and text, millions have been able to sample the Smithsonian experience whenever they want.

But most Americans do not yet have access to the information highway; and even those who can get on-line know that there is something very special about "the real thing." Enjoying firsthand the treasures we hold in trust for the American people still involves taking a trip to Washington.

I mean to change that, if only for one moment in our history.

Next year, 1996, is our 150th anniversary. I can think of no better way to celebrate the Smithsonian's birthday than to take the treasures of the Smithsonian "home" to as many regions and as many Americans as possible. During 1996 and 1997, the exhibition "America's Smithsonian," featuring some of the most historic, intriguing and beautiful objects from our history, art and science museums, will travel to 12 cities around the country, among them Los Angeles, Kansas City, Detroit and Houston.

This will be without question the Smithsonian's largest traveling exhibition ever. It may prove to be the largest that has ever toured the country. Since the exhibition will occupy 50,000 square feet, it is too large for traditional museum spaces, so we will transform convention and civic centers into exhibition halls with all the excitement (and security) of our own museums. And like visitors to the museums around the National Mall, everyone will be able to enter free of charge.

What can you expect to see on your visit to "America's Smithsonian"? Treasures from our national past, such as First Ladies' gowns, George Washington's sword, Tecumseh's tomahawk, Thomas Edison's light bulb and Amelia Earhart's flight suit; from the world of sports and entertainment, Babe Ruth's bat, Arthur Ashe's tennis racket, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet and Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz; from the United States and around the world, powerful works of art and valued scientific collections; from outer space, the Apollo 14 command module. There will be at least 150 treasures in all.

We also want people to feel the special excitement of a visit to the National Mall. We'll have a carousel to ride on, a performance stage, a Victorian ice cream parlor to relax in and, if we can work out the details, an amazing new way to see our Imax films. These are the joyous aspects of a visit to the Smithsonian that we want people to be able to experience in their own part of the country, until they get a chance to come visit us in the nation's capital.

Along with the objects we display will come intellectual treasures: our researchers, our educators, our specialists in all matters of conserving and displaying the objects we hold in trust and the many traditions we want to pass on to generations to come. During the six weeks that "America's Smithsonian" is in town, some of our staff will go to the schools, universities and museums that enrich each city; others will tell you what they know about objects that you bring for them to look at, or give some tips on collecting and preserving your own family's objects and memories.

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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