Before you can talk about anything, you have to know what it is; you must be able to define it. For a column marking our parent institution's 150th anniversary, I was going to have a go at defining the place myself. But then it occurred to me: Who better to do this than some of the 6,500 men and women who work here? So I picked out a baker's dozen and challenged them to come up with a definition in one sentence or at most one paragraph, but no more. "What to you," the question read, "is the essence of the Smithsonian?"
The sample is totally unscientific. We could not encompass the whole Smithsonian in one issue last month, and it certainly cannot be done in one column. So I talked only to people in the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. These are biologists, anthropologists and geologists, people I've met over the years who I thought would have something to say. They did.
Here, for example, is George Zug, a curator of reptiles and amphibians at Natural History. He e-mailed his reply as he left for the field: "For me [the essence] is the opportunity to satisfy the curiosity in our souls. This applies equally to someone visiting our exhibits and to my own search for unknowns in the biology of sea turtles or the relationship of two gecko species in the South Pacific."
Gene Morton is a research ornithologist at the National Zoological Park. He put it this way: "Above all, the Smithsonian creates one great empirical theory of the way life adapts to Earth through the natural history knowledge its scientists create and pass on."
Fish and shark expert Victor Springer, a curator at the Natural History museum, took a few extra words: "When the American people think of the Smithsonian, they think MUSEUM — good show. As a kid I dreamt of the day I could visit the Smithsonian and see the displays of the great variety of life past and present. What I, and the public, did not think about were the scientist-scholars whose curiosity drove them to collect all those things in the show, to study those things in order to give them meaning, and to impart that meaning by publishing and bringing into being the exhibits that so attract not only their fellow Americans but people from all over the world."
Dennis Stanford, an anthropologist who heads up the Paleoindian/Paleoecology Project, says he has found the best possible place to work. "Anthropology in the United States had its earliest beginnings at the Smithsonian. This is the center for paleoindian research, and has been since Day One. Today our department is a crossroads for hundreds of scholars. Talking to all these people, I gain firsthand knowledge of what is going on all over the Western Hemisphere. It's the perfect place for synthesis."
Don Ortner is an anthropologist who studies human adaptation and disease in ancient peoples. He has just finished a two-year stint as acting director of the National Museum of Natural History. "I fell in love with the place at age 13. Looking at specimen labels inside all those dark cherry cabinets, I would take pages of notes, never thinking I'd be on the staff some day," he says.
"It's a place where you can ask, What are the really important scientific problems? and then work on them. It is vital for great nations to have such places. I think curiosity is genetic. Our ancestors wanted to understand natural phenomena-for example, What are the stars? It is just as important for scientists today to pursue the important questions of our time and share this knowledge with others."
Stan Shetler is a botanist and former deputy director of the museum who also has filled in as acting director. He explains that the Smithsonian is "a citadel of learning where scholars pursue basic answers to questions of natural heritage and human existence." It is also, he says, "the national keeper and interpreter of the material record of the American odyssey, its explorations, discoveries, and scientific, technological and cultural achievements."
Asked about our place in biology, he says, "We are the only national institution devoted to the discovery and elucidation of biodiversity across a broad range of plant and animal groups, not just in North America, but around the globe. Our role in the broad sense has been as the nation's keepers of the catalog of nature, and we are unique in the depth and breadth of both our collections and our expertise."