A Smithsonian for this Century

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In the four months between my appointment as Secretary-elect of the Smithsonian in 1999 and the moment when I formally took on the daily responsibilities of the job last month, I sought to learn as much as I could about the Institution's history, collections and people — the people who shaped its first century and a half and those dedicated today to seeing it flourish in a new century. The more I discovered about this marvelous national treasure, the more I wanted to share the knowledge. Like some latter-day ancient mariner needing to tell my tale, I would buttonhole friends and, after the obligatory "Did you know...," share a portion of the bottomless store of statistics that measure the scale and reach of the Smithsonian.

As I cornered those patient friends, I found that all of them recognized the name "Smithsonian Institution" but that few had any idea of the breadth and depth of our activities, of how they emerged over time, or of how they relate to one another as distinct components of a single organization. I became convinced that we need to articulate an overarching vision for the Smithsonian that will convey clearly what we are, what we do and why we do it, and where our mission will take us in the years ahead.

The Smithsonian's time-honored mission, the "increase and diffusion of knowledge," dates back to its origins. But in spite of the words' great traditional appeal, I wonder whether the goal they define has not become too vague and amorphous in a world where there are thousands of institutions and undertakings that may legitimately lay claim to that same purpose. "Increase and diffusion" grabbed headlines in the 19th century. I want to find their vital and compelling equivalent for the 21st century. In fact, today's Smithsonian, the complexity of which no one could have foreseen 154 years ago when its founders imagined that a single building would contain the enterprise, may require several mission statements and several associated sets of goals and plans. Let me explain.

The Smithsonian is the nation's principal repository of objects that have shaped our knowledge of the cultural and scientific histories of America and the world. The great public mission of the Smithsonian is to use our resources to create experiences that will educate, excite, entertain and inspire Americans (and visitors from abroad) more constructively than any other educational and cultural institution in the United States. Our approach is holistic — in the museums, in the traveling exhibitions that extend the museums, in our festivals and talks and performances, in print, on-screen and on-line — and it has no equal.

The collections-focused activities of the Smithsonian — the museum experience in all its imaginative variety—are familiar to Americans. But the Smithsonian is also a center of first-class scientific activity in a number of highly specialized areas — at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, for example — work that, unfortunately, is not at all familiar to the public. I shall say much in future columns about our scientific mission and how it should serve America's educational, government and business institutions.

For now, I want to reaffirm our broad public mission, which we can accomplish only if we recognize certain defining new realities of contemporary American life. The most dynamic population growth in the nation today is in the South and West, and we must reach those new audiences. More important, by the middle of the 21st century, nearly half of U.S. residents will belong to groups that today constitute the minority. We must make certain that the Smithsonian speaks to them. In fact, we must learn to speak to the new generations of all backgrounds. In this embracing of new audiences, technology can be an ally, and we should capitalize upon the promises of the Internet, of instant communication and unlimited access, and of increasingly refined displays of digital sound and images.

But there is something to be said for the old-fashioned approach as well. For us that means getting the actual treasures of the Institution out of our "attics" and into locations across America. Our traveling exhibitions are one way of doing that, and we need to increase their number and frequency. We are also establishing new and, I hope, stable and enduring relationships by affiliating with other museums and depositing with them portions of our collections. In sharing our resources, so that the objects can be seen and enjoyed by new audiences in communities far from Washington, we are determined to make the Smithsonian of the 21st century more fully and precisely what the Institution exists to be — America's museum.

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