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Smithsonian Perspectives

The Smithsonian takes its experts and scholars on the road in its new Voices of Discovery program

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The celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian continues into the new year, as does our determination to foster an increased sense of "public ownership" of the Institution and to make it more accessible to people around the nation. The centerpiece of these efforts, of course, is the traveling exhibition "America's Smithsonian," which has visited six cities in the past year.

The exhibition is doing an extraordinary job of showcasing nearly 300 of the greatest treasures we hold in trust for the American people. While most people think of the Smithsonian as only a repository of American historical and cultural artifacts, equally important are its human resources-the researchers, scholars, curators and museum educators who give meaning and shape to the Institution's diverse collections. To highlight the many ways in which the Smithsonian contributes to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge," we developed the Smithsonian Voices of Discovery program.

It was Michael Robinson, director of the National Zoological Park, who first recommended that the traveling exhibition be complemented by a selection of Smithsonian scholars. For each city, ten scholars in a variety of specialties would be chosen to give presentations over a five-day period. To implement this concept, we called upon the Smithsonian Associates, the education and membership unit of the Institution, whose staff has many years of experience creating public programs and collaborating with museum directors, curators and research scholars.

Rather than merely holding Smithsonian lectures as part of the traveling exhibition, we wanted the Voices program to reach out more personally to the people by going directly into local communities. To do this, new partnerships were created with local organizations, giving them an opportunity to actively participate in these outreach efforts. I would like to thank the following organizations that contributed funding: the Ahmanson Foundation and the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation in Los Angeles; the Champlin Foundations in Providence, Rhode Island; Pentair, Inc., and the McNeely Foundation in St. Paul/Minneapolis; and, in Houston, the Houston Endowment, Inc., Enron, and Time Warner Cable, Houston division.

With the assistance of a variety of local organizations, Voices programs were held in locations across each of the six host cities and their surrounding areas-in elementary and secondary schools, university auditoriums, public libraries, community centers, retirement homes, and museums and zoos. Audiences were as varied as these program locations suggest-from schoolchildren and university students to museum visitors, volunteer docents, and local scholars and researchers.


Three hundred children packed the Hillcrest Recreation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, to see Sally Love, exhibit developer at the National Museum of Natural History-and affectionately known as the "bug lady"-demonstrate her live insect friends in a lecture entitled "How to Look at an Insect and Learn about Our World." She also shared her presentation with senior citizens in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Senior scientist William G. Melson, Division of Petrology and Volcanology at the National Museum of Natural History, captivated family audiences in Providence, Rhode Island, with his presentations on volcanoes and earthquakes. Because of his participation in this Voices program, Melson is now advising the Museum of Natural History in Providence on a new outdoor exhibit about local geologic formations.

While most Voices programs were open to the public, some were developed for specific groups. For the Houston Independent School System, a teachers' in-service day was an opportunity for teachers to attend presentations by a Smithsonian geologist and four museum curators. Alan Fern, director of the National Portrait Gallery, spoke to museum professionals and preservationists at the Historic House Trust of New York City.

I should emphasize the positive and long-lasting impact of these programs. You don't always know specifically whose life is touched or which young scholar-to-be is influenced by the exposure to new ideas and career choices, but you know that it happens. Just ask Steven Newsome, director of the Anacostia Museum, who received a standing ovation at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts after his presentation on "HIP HOP and History."

As part of Voices of Discovery, 70 Smithsonian scholars, including five museum directors, have shared their expertise and their enthusiasm for learning with approximately 60,000 eager participants at more than 500 separate presentations. The reach of some presentations was extended even further with the use of various telecommunications technologies. Thomas Crouch, chairman of the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum, appeared in a one-hour television program about the principles of flight that was later distributed to schools in the Los Angeles area. In Kansas City, Missouri, Andrew Connors, curator at the National Museum of American Art, presented a Voices session on the revival of Hispanic traditional arts that was incorporated into a Hispanic studies telecourse and broadcast live on cable television.

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

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

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