The Smithsonian May Go for the Gold, Opening a Venue at London’s Olympic Grounds

The Smithsonian Regents give museum officials the thumbs-up to explore opening a new gallery in London and the mayor there says, “Welcome to our city”

An aerial view shows the location of the culture and university district, a 4.5-acre triangular site, near the London Aquatics Centre, the former Olympic Stadium and the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture and observation tower. (Kevin Allen/London Legacy Development Corp. (LLDC))
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The Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution authorized museum officials to explore opening its first-ever international exhibition gallery. On January 26, the Regents gave the Smithsonian Acting Secretary the go-ahead to "develop terms for an agreement" with the London Legacy Development Corp. to create a new exhibition space in London at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, home to the 2012 Games and a new cultural center. In the Smithsonian’s 168-year existence, this site would be the first international venue to house a long-term exhibition.

The location of the project is fitting, given the background of the Smithsonian’s founder, James Smithson, an English chemist who never set foot in America. When he died, he left to the United States, the sum total of his wealth, an estate of $508,318, or about $10 million in today's dollars. His request was to establish in Washington, D.C., an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Today that legacy includes 19 museums and galleries, a zoo, and nine research facilities. Smithsonian officials say that the Institution’s London project would play a major role in increasing its global presence and reaching a wider audience. “Smithson’s gold was taken across the ocean in trunkfuls to finance the Smithsonian,” says Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who spoke to Smithsonian.com prior to the announcement about his affection for the Smithsonian Institution and its museums.

“I remember going to the Air and Space Museum absolutely vividly as a 5-year-old,” he says. “From the London point of view, there could be nothing more exciting culturally to have one of the great museums of the world here and to welcome it to our city.”

The location of the Smithsonian’s London exhibition would be in the rapidly changing East London neighborhood, situated amongst many other British cultural centers and museums, including branches of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, University of the Arts London and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Together, these places would occupy a 4.5-acre site on Stratford Waterfront, a part of “Olympicopolis," which is projected to open in 2021, hosting 1.5 million visitors a year. The Olympic Park will also undergo other revitalization, including the construction of housing and schools as well as sports and entertainment sites.

“The Smithsonian will be a bright shining star in a constellation of heavenly bodies,” says Johnson, “it will give East London a new dynamic pole of attraction, a new cultural center.” 

This map shows the triangular site for the culture and university district of “Olympicopolis.” (London Legacy Development Corp. (LLDC))

The 40,000-square-foot Smithsonian gallery would include permanent and rotating exhibitions as well as interactive programs and activities focusing on the spectrum of history, art, culture and science. “We see this as an unprecedented opportunity to show the breadth of the Smithsonian in one of the most diverse cities in the world,” says the Smithsonian's Acting Secretary, Al Horvath.

The project idea was originally sparked in 2014 when Johnson approached the Institution about redeveloping the former Olympic property. Since then, senior Smithsonian staff have been evaluating the site and the idea.

Johnson and the London Legacy Development Corp., a public-private entity operated through the mayor’s office, are managing the process and have secured initial contributions of $50 million to fund construction and to support Smithsonian exhibitions. Admission would be free and Smithsonian officials say that federal funding would not be used. 

Negotiations over the terms of the Smithsonian lease are to begin immediately.

The decision to establish this location, officials say, is a major step in the Smithsonian’s goal to show its purpose and programs to millions who would otherwise not visit the museum, reaching more donors in the process. “An exhibition space in London will enable us to share the best of the Smithsonian with an international audience in a way we haven’t been able to before,” says Horvath, according to the Smithsonian's press release.

"I think it will provide a fantastic venue to exhibit the best of America in the most diverse, dynamic city in Western Europe," says Johnson and referring to the founder's legacy, added: "It is great that Smithson, is, in a sense, coming home."

UPDATE: A previous version of this story reported that the Stratford Waterfront site was 19 acres, but it is 4.5 acres; and the University College London is not located in that area, though it is a participant in the overall Olympicopolis project. We also reported that the Regents would make a final decision on April 13, but that vote may happen at a later date.

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