The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was called the “last universal man”—a person who had a grasp of all the world’s knowledge. A stretch then, and impossible today. Our age has seen an explosion of experts in hundreds of disciplines, all creating huge amounts of specialized knowledge, which ricochets instantaneously around the world over the Internet. Not even von Humboldt could make sense of it all.
Which is why the Smithsonian’s new strategic plan takes a cross-disciplinary approach to four Grand Challenges: unlocking the mysteries of the universe, understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet, valuing world cultures, and understanding the American experience. We have established four corresponding Smithsonian Consortia to organize and energize interdisciplinary efforts and to stimulate intellectual exchange within the Institution and beyond. And we have appointed four outstanding scholars as Consortia directors; they now devote half of their time to their consortium, and half to their specialization at the Smithsonian—be it astrophysics, tropical biology, museum archives or photography collections. The Consortia draw from various fields to advance research and provide core content to exhibitions, curricula and public programs. Thanks to a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 31 projects have already been funded. (See si.edu/consortia.)
One such collaborative effort, the Immigration Initiative, will explore the importance of immigration and migration in American history. It will use Smithsonian resources to help Americans contemplate their own experiences—and thereby better appreciate the wider history and culture of our nation. The Immigration Initiative will culminate in a presentation at the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and an exhibition at the National Museum of American History the following year. Another project, the Marine Global Earth Observatories, will draw on the Institution’s marine science resources to establish several coastal sites for long-term monitoring of marine life and to collect data on changes in biodiversity. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will create an exhibition—for use by universities and colleges—showcasing discoveries such as black holes and dark energy. A program called Race: A Pan-Institutional Collaboration will explore the themes of race, diversity and identity.
Moving forward, we will seek out like-minded partners at universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies willing to tackle high-risk/high-return problems. I am confident that collaborations such as these will reinvigorate the Smithsonian and allow us to better serve all those who look to us for knowledge and understanding.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution