I detected the same enthusiasm and drive in his plans for the Smithsonian. "I think there's clearly a tremendous opportunity for us to be far more meaningful to the American people," he said, "by developing a presence all around the country. I don't mean branches, but more of what is already being done."
We were talking about the Smithsonian's staggering collection of more than 141 million items, of which he doubts that even 2 percent are on exhibit. He hasn't yet had a chance to visit the Institution's vast storage and conservation facilities in Suitland, Maryland, with their thousands and thousands of pots, skeletons, spears and shields, fish, fossils and, reportedly, the brain of explorer John Wesley Powell. But he has a grasp of the basic issue, the sheer quantity of stuff owned by the Smithsonian.
"There are so many institutions that don't have extensive collections and would love to have long-term loans of objects from the Smithsonian as well as a permanent relationship with us. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service [SITES] is a huge success; it always has 40 to 50 shows traveling at any one time, and they are seen by millions of people. The Smithsonian name and reputation command a public, so the problem is to get to that public.
"It's no innovation on my part — the Smithsonian has already figured it out — but I can emphasize what is already a priority, and I look forward to working with members of Congress, who are fabulous conveners of people and resources in their areas."
The new Secretary envisions the Institution "building affiliations all over the country that will allow millions more to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by this collection of national treasures."
Plus, of course, there is the virtual museum. He told me of his visit to the Smithsonian's Astrophysical Observatory, which has robotic telescopes that provide images via the Internet, allowing students and teachers to download, say, a view of the moon. "Five years from now, there will be hundreds of times as much of this sort of thing available," Small said. "We will be delivering the Smithsonian virtually through electronics, in addition to delivering it physically by greater activity, to diffuse knowledge. This is a new age, as far as teaching materials go."
As a member of the Smithsonian Luncheon Group, an Institution outreach organization, Small has been thoroughly impressed by the high quality and vast experience of Smithsonian people. Recently he was talking to Michael Robinson, director of the National Zoological Park.
"We got onto New Guinea, and he said he'd lived there four years. Then we talked about Latin America. Oh yes, he'd lived in Panama eight years. And then I said my wife and I loved India, it's our favorite country for tourism and studies, and he said, oh yes, he'd just got back from there." So if anyone wants to know how Larry Small manages to do it, starting at 8 A.M. and going to 8 P.M., attending meetings back to back, he'll say, "It's fun. It's like watching the greatest show on earth."