Two Centennials for the Smithsonian

In 2010, the Institution celebrates two seminal events – the founding of its Natural History Museum and the inauguration of its research in Panama

Natural History Museum construction
The National Museum of Natural History, opened in 1910, is the largest museum on the National Mall. Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 2010, we celebrate two seminal Smithsonian events—the opening of the largest museum ever built on the National Mall and the research that led to the founding of our tropical research institute in Panama.

One hundred years ago, in March 1910, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) first welcomed the public. Today with some 7.5 million annual visitors and over 30 million more online, NMNH is one of the world’s most frequented museums. In a space equal to 18 football fields, NMNH staffers curate the world’s largest natural history collection—126 million specimens—including 30 million insects, 4.5 million plants, 7 million fish and 2 million artifacts, drawings and photographs. Year after year millions of these specimens are on loan to researchers in nearly 100 countries.

Ushering NMNH into the 21st century are new exhibits and Web portals about the world’s oceans and the science of human origins. The Encyclopedia of Life, in which NMNH is a lead partner, is creating a Web page for every known species. NMNH’s global genome project is preserving DNA diversity. The museum’s Recovering Voices program is documenting and sustaining endangered languages and traditional knowledge. And NMNH’s deep time program is doing research and producing exhibits on environmental change over time—including the age of dinosaurs. With these and other initiatives, NMNH will continue to stand at the frontiers of science and encourage environmental stewardship.

David McCullough, author of The Path Between the Seas, lists the Panama Canal among “humankind’s greatest achievements.” It increased global trade and led to advances in disease control, science and engineering. The first Smithsonian expeditions by NMNH and other scientists to Panama (1910-12) inaugurated 100 years of our research there. This work, which began with biodiversity surveys to meet the environmental challenges of building the canal, led to the founding of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

In 1923, Barro Colorado Island, located in the canal’s Gatun Lake, became a biological preserve. With the agreement of Panama’s government, it remains STRI’s centerpiece. The island’s 1,316 plant, 381 bird and 102 mammal species are some of the world’s most studied. STRI’s unique, pathbreaking Global Earth Observatories program assesses climate change’s effects on the function and biodiversity of forest ecosystems by measuring the carbon dioxide that is absorbed from the atmosphere by millions of trees in 34 large-scale plots in 20 countries worldwide. The STRI centennial provides an opportunity to showcase its proud scientific past while recommitting the Smithsonian to provide an authoritative voice in today’s debates about climate change and the impact of humans on biological diversity. These anniversaries are a good time for reflection as well as for charting bold courses to address global challenges—ensuring the Smithsonian’s readiness for the next 100, even 1,000, years.

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.