Smithsonian Perspectives

The talent and commitment of our volunteers add immeasurably to the well-being of the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The last week in April is National Volunteer Week, and I can think of no organization that depends more on volunteers for its continuing vitality than the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, quickly recognized the power of volunteers. Fascinated by the then burgeoning attempts to predict weather, Henry set up a system of more than 500 volunteers around the country to report their weather observations to him, first on a monthly basis by mail and later on a daily basis via telegraph.

Today our reliance on volunteers takes many different forms. For some of these men and women, volunteering at the Smithsonian is a commitment to being a student, to dedicating a substantial amount of time to the highly specialized and ongoing training that prepares them for the important work they do here. A number of volunteers make the Smithsonian a part of their lives, staying on for 20 or more years.

Volunteers are our ambassadors, the first contact that many people have with the Smithsonian. They staff information desks, welcoming visitors and answering questions ranging from "Where can I get something to eat?" to "How can I find out more about mollusks?" They respond to thousands of letters and hundreds of thousands of telephone calls each year. They serve as docents, or guides, helping visitors of all ages to explore our exhibitions. Some focus on giving tours for special audiences, for disabled visitors or tourists from overseas. They handle hissing cockroaches at the Natural History Museum's Insect Zoo and help youngsters learn about 18th-century life at the American History Museum's Hands-On History Room.

Volunteers provide invaluable assistance behind the scenes, supporting the work of researchers, conservators and other staff. They organize artists' papers, serve as translators and digitize photographs. They aid our membership and fundraising activities. They help to pack collections and prepare objects for storage or exhibition. They repair aircraft and 150-year-old tapa cloths. They provide support for public programming, performances, lectures, workshops, family programs and seminars throughout the Institution. Without the help of volunteers, nationally known annual events such as the Smithsonian Craft Show and the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife would be impossible.

Just as the opportunities for volunteers have grown from modest beginnings to the eclectic array available now, so have the numbers of individuals participating. The 5,256 volunteers reported in the survey of fiscal year 1994 conducted by our Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center illustrate clearly the richness and diversity of volunteer support that permeates virtually every activity and organization across the Smithsonian. From our public arenas to the most remote of research areas, volunteers invested collectively some 574,800 hours of service, thus assuring the ongoing work of the Institution.

From time to time, volunteers share their perspectives on the experience. One woman says that she knew for a long time that when she retired, she wanted to be a volunteer at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. A volunteer at the National Museum of American Art is delighted that her work "forces" her to continue to study art. A man who has collected stamps since the age of 7 enjoys explaining to National Postal Museum visitors what makes stamp collectors tick. A National Zoological Park guide says that part of his motivation is to get the younger generation interested in natural history and the environment. "I myself am constantly learning," he says, "and I hope to make a difference for others."

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian, the importance of an enduring volunteer commitment to the well-being of the Institution cannot be overemphasized. I join my colleagues in paying tribute to each of our own volunteers and to others who give their time and talent to worthwhile organizations throughout the country. The efforts they have expended make us a stronger institution and nation.

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus