A Task for Every Talent

Since the Smithsonian’s earliest days, the help of volunteers has been essential

The Secretary with a few "collaborators." Hugh Talman, Smithsonian Institution

The monument that exists to the men and women who have volunteered their services to the Smithsonian throughout its history is nothing less than the Institution itself. Without volunteers, the Smithsonian—as America and the world have come to know it—would not exist. Simple as that. There's not a day of the year when we should not celebrate the generosity of these individuals who give of their time and skills for no payment other than what I hope is a wealth of personal satisfaction.

Volunteerism has been in the lifeblood of the Institution from its earliest days. The first Secretary, Joseph Henry, recruited volunteers around the country to send him weather reports (a task made easier by the spread of the telegraph) and displayed daily weather maps in the Smithsonian Castle. In time, that activity led to the establishment of the first national weather service. Henry's assistant, Spencer Baird, who succeeded him as Secretary, said this of the far-flung ranks of volunteers: "A body of collaborators was secured to the Institution, whose services cannot be overestimated, since they not only furnished information relating to meteorology, but they were always ready to supply information and assistance in other directions." Other volunteers sent fossils and specimens and artifacts of every sort to the Smithsonian.

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that, without volunteers, the Smithsonian would be half the place it is. Consider the numbers. Last year, there were 6,692 paid employees throughout the Institution and 5,508 volunteers. The two largest centrally managed volunteer programs are run by the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center (VIARC), and between them they involve more than 1,800 individuals. The Volunteer Information Specialist Program recruits the gracious, knowledgeable men and women who respond to phone inquiries and staff the information desks in our museums.

The second large VIARC program, the Behind-the-Scenes Volunteer Program, enlists individuals to work out of public view on projects too various to categorize. A sample: answering the Institution's mail, assembling shards of pottery, helping to reorganize our collections of bank notes or birds, sifting Arctic sand in search of fish-bone needles, dusting a train or a meteorite, polishing the tarnished skin of an aircraft, potting the poinsettias that grace the museums' public spaces during the holiday season. There's a task for every temperament and talent.

In addition to the VIARC programs, each of our museums has a volunteer docents program; there were 1,240 docents in 2003. Other volunteer opportunities, especially at the National Zoo and the annual Folklife Festival, attracted almost 2,500 individuals last year. The men and women on the Board of Regents, the governing body of the Institution, also serve without financial compensation, as do hundreds of others in more than 30 volunteer advisory groups, including a national advisory board.

The volunteer spirit that's essential to the Smithsonian is, of course, an essential characteristic of America, powerfully rooted in our history. Benjamin Franklin, for example, gets credit for having encouraged the establishment of a volunteer fire brigade in Philadelphia. But by the time he did, Boston already had a "fire society." Who knows how many other acts of civic generosity in how many other American communities have eluded the history books? Yet their consequence is everywhere visible. No wonder cultural institutions abroad ask VIARC how they, too, can seed, grow and harvest the generosity they perceive, correctly, as so widespread in America. The volunteer's disposition is second nature to this nation. And should we take it for granted, there's the world's admiration to remind us just how rare a resource it is.

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