How Do Smithsonian Curators Decide What to Collect?

The Star Spangled Banner and John Glenn’s spacesuit were clearly musts. Other artifacts are less obvious

To underscore the transitory nature of material life, Tibetan monks poured their mandala into the Potomac. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
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After the 9/11 attacks, 20 Tibetan Buddhist monks came to the Smithsonian to help America heal. By making a sand mandala. For days they created colorful lines and intricate patterns by putting down sand—a few grains at a time, in many bright hues—on a large wood platform in the Sackler Gallery. The result was an astonishingly beautiful sand painting. After two weeks, expressing their belief that material life is transitory, the monks swept up the sand and poured it into the Potomac; curators respected their decision, despite the fact that a basic Smithsonian mandate is to preserve valuable artifacts forever. The Institution's history, art and culture collections connect us to our nation's past, identity and creative spirit—and to the world's diverse cultures. Our scientific specimens increase understanding of our planet's formation and biodiversity. New DNA testing makes our biological specimens ever more valuable as they enter the world's genetic database, and DNA barcoding makes rapid identification of species possible.

How do our curators decide what to collect? The Star-Spangled Banner, Thomas Edison's light bulb, Joe Louis' boxing gloves and John Glenn's spacesuit were clearly musts. Other artifacts are less obvious. In 2001, curators interviewed Julia Child. Standing in her kitchen, they realized its significance and asked for its entire contents. Two months later, 55 boxes and crates arrived. The Julia Child kitchen exhibit is now one of our most popular (see americanhistory.si.edu/juliachild/). The Smithsonian's Recovering Voices program collaborates with indigenous communities to document and sustain the world's endangered languages. Among other collections, the program draws on countless audio recordings and our collection of Native American language manuscripts—the world's largest. The National Portrait Gallery's collection of celebrity caricatures from the 1920s and '30s gives us a glimpse into that era's popular culture and its attitudes about mass- media-generated fame, public identity, race and gender.

The Smithsonian's collections transport us back millions of years to humanity's beginnings, and far beyond. The Allende meteorite, formed 4.56 billion years ago, is the world's oldest known natural specimen—and the oldest object at the Smithsonian. It contains diamonds from dozens of supernovas and amino acids that could have provided the raw materials for early life forms. We'll certainly keep it forever, as we will photographs and other documentation of the marvelous 9/11 mandala.

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

A few months after the 9/11 attacks, in response to a request from the Dalai Lama, 20 Tibetan Buddhist monks came to the Smithsonian's Freer & Sackler galleries, the national museums of Asian art. Before beginning their sand painting, some of them—in elaborate costumes—consecrated the site and also chanted, meditated, performed music and dance and conducted other traditional healing ceremonies. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
A senior monk outlined the sand painting template with chalk on a wood platform. He and the other monks were from the Drepung Loseling Monastery, established in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1416. Since the 1959 incorporation of Tibet into China, the monastery has been headquartered—in exile—in southern India; it also has a center in Atlanta, where 2,500 monks study. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
Monks used large compasses and white pencils to draw the circles and the painting’s other intricate patterns. Sand mandalas are unique to Tibetan Buddhism, which dates to the 7th century. Sand mandalas are believed to promote purification and healing. According to the Freer and Sackler Galleries, sand mandalas do this by transmitting “positive energies to the environment and to the people who view them.” (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
A monk applied sand, a few grains at a time, using a cone-shaped metal funnel called a chak-pur. By rubbing a metal rod on the funnel’s metal surface, he creates vibrations which cause the sand to pour, as if it were a stream of liquid. Millions of grains of powdered, multi-hued marble were used for this painting. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
One observer asked what would happen if a monk sneezed. The answer was that if the sand patterns had been disturbed, the monks would simply redo that section. When finished, the painting was seven-feet-square, one of the largest ever created in the West. It took 20 monks working in shifts two weeks to complete the painting, offered to America for healing and protection. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
While working on the mandala, the monks sometimes chanted and meditated to invoke divine energies and ask for their healing blessings. The mandala has three layers of meaning: the outer (a model of the universe), the inner (to help minds become enlightened), and the secret (a perfect balance of mind and body). (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
While consecrating the finished painting, another senior monk held two ritual implements, both very important in Tibetan Buddhism: the bell (ghanta) and the thunderbolt (dorje). “The dorje scepter, in the monk’s right hand represents the unbreakable or supreme nature of compassion” explains Debra Diamond, curator of south Asian art and co-curator of a pair of upcoming exhibitions, “In the Realm of the Buddha.”” “The bell creates a sound that represents the void," she says, "the true nature of existence, which pervades everything.” (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
At the site of the painting, Buddhist devotees placed offerings in bowls surrounding a ewer holding peacock feathers. Flowers, rice, and water, are among the traditional offerings. “But Tibetan monks are often playful and they live fully in the present, so I imagine they would have especially enjoyed the Snickers bars,” says Diamond. Participants in an online journal about the mandala being painted described the monks with words such as calm, sweet, cheery, humble, laughy, smiley and serene. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
According to the galleries, “the Tibetan mandala is a tool for gaining wisdom and compassion and generally is depicted as a tightly balanced, geometric composition wherein deities reside. The principle deity is housed in the center....Monks meditate upon the mandala, imagining it as a three dimensional palace. The deities who reside in the palace embody philosophical views and serve as role models. The mandala’s purpose is to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones.” (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
But a basic tenet of Buddhism is the impermanence of existence. After thousands of Freer & Sackler visitors had enjoyed the painting, monks swept it up. The monks believe that the mandala had already transmitted positive energies to the environment and all of the people who had viewed it. In fact they believe that the mandala’s healing power extended throughout the world. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
Just outside the Freer & Sackler, a monk distributed small samples of the sand used in the mandala to visitors. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
Another monk also distributed samples, offered as blessings for health and healing. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
The monks then formed a procession to carry the remaining sand to the nearby Potomac River. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
A central element of the Tibetan sand-painting ritual is to disperse the sand into flowing water.This act is an additional expression of sharing the mandala’s blessings with all of Earth’s sentient beings. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
Before dispersing the sand, the monks performed ritual chants. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
While holding a ghanta (bell) in his left hand, a senior monk then poured the sand into the water. (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
The sand painting ritual was now complete, and observers clapped and waved to the monks. In response, the monks waved back, beaming with smiles and laughter. “Everyone was pleased,” explains Diamond. “This auspicious event has gone well. There's a great mood in the air.” (John Tsantes / Sackler Gallery, SI)
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