When Americans hear the word "Smithsonian," most are likely to make a spontaneous and powerful association: "museums." But to regard the Smithsonian as a physical presence only is to miss a great measure of its contribution. The Institution’s massive public profile in 16 museums and the National Zoo (and, less visible to the public, in our scientific research institutes) is sustained by a no less formidable intellectual presence—by the scholars and researchers who shape activities, tend the objects, uncover their mysteries and impose an order on their display. In the museums, the intellectual presence is mediated through the objects and their presentation. But in other approaches we take to our educational mission, the presence is immediate and personal.
Nothing better embodies that quality of personal engagement than the activities of The Smithsonian Associates (TSA). Over the past three decades, TSA has become not just the world’s largest program of museum-based continuing education and guided study tours but the most highly regarded. The limits to its curriculum of lectures, courses, seminars and tours are set only by the limits of curiosity and scholarship. Imagine something worth knowing about; imagine learning about it from an authority—often the authority—on the subject.
Mara Mayor, and that characterization seems right on the mark. (Even the "all ages" is no exaggeration: TSA runs a summer camp and stages live shows for children throughout the year in the Arts and Industries Building.) For its faculty, the program turns to Smithsonian staff and to experts recruited from around the world. True, there are no exams or term papers at this university, but good riddance to them. For the intellectual essentials, the analogy holds.
TSA’s activities radiate outward in a natural progression from a strong core on the Mall, including a master’s degree program in American Decorative Arts and a Washington-area Resident Associates membership, to all regions of the country. Its Voices of Discovery program, for example, sends scholars into schools, libraries and museums and brings a Smithsonian presence to areas far beyond Washington. Associates also touch down on all the continents, including Antarctica, where travelers step out onto the ice to encounter seals, sea lions, albatross and uncountable thousands of penguins. TSA’s program of tours, Himalayas. (The tours’ Smithsonian auspices have the frequent benefit of gaining privileged access for members—to the storeroom of a great museum, perhaps, or the otherwise-off-limits wing of a palace.)
TSA is developing an on-line presence that will let visitors to its website hear audio transmissions of a selection of its programs. It’s also experimenting with adding synchronized video, still images and text, making the remote experience the next best thing to being there.
Of course, TSA seems to be not just there but everywhere. It’s no surprise that a tour to Iceland this summer will include an "optional extension to Greenland." When a hospitable moon or the free-floating environment of a space station is someday ready for lay visitors, TSA will have plotted a course to the spot, and in the silence of space a Smithsonian astrophysicist will be heard explaining the motion of galaxies to a band of travelers, all of them a little closer, thanks to The Smithsonian Associates, to putting the universe in perspective.