Cartwheels at 50

Matt Mitchell

To the short list of things that really do get better with age, add the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the largest such service in the world. SITES turns 50 this year, and it could probably turn cartwheels as well. It’s as vigorous and fleet as its acronym. More important, it’s one of the Smithsonian’s principal means of reaching people all across America. Through SITES, the Smithsonian sets up shop in cities and towns large and small and brings them a valued portion of itself.

SITES began in 1952—a time when disruptions caused by World War II were still being felt—with a different mission: placing exhibitions, mostly from abroad, in American museums. The first stirrings of transformation came with the celebration of the American bicentennial in the mid-1970s. It brought renewed attention to the Smithsonian’s own resources—to the boundless store of objects in our care that speak so authentically to this nation’s history. When the Smithsonian sent a selection of those objects out to tour America for the bicentennial, it established a new model for SITES: homegrown traveling exhibitions devised specifically to share the material and intellectual riches of the Institution. A fundamental shift had begun. The gates opened, and one of the Smithsonian’s most adventurous programs took flight.

SITES shows are of two general types and many gradations of scale: re-creations of Smithsonian museum exhibitions, and those built just for the road, born to wander and enrich. The shows are made to go just about anywhere, from museums and historical societies to libraries, community centers, zoos, aquariums, shopping malls, barns, trucks and any other venue to which audiences have easy access. For SITES personnel, there’s no such thing as a remote corner of the nation. The program’s guiding spirits might well be Lewis and Clark.

Each SITES exhibition is a complete package—artifacts, photographs, publications, interpretive information, educational resources—and the components are done to standards set by curators and other scholars. The shows are designed to entertain as well as to inform, and there is abundant evidence of their success. But time and again they’ve had an additional happy consequence: many visitors drawn to the local host institutions, perhaps for the first time, by the Smithsonian name return again and again long after the SITES exhibition has packed up and moved on.

Some 50 SITES exhibitions will be available over the next several years, and their subject matter is as various as the Smithsonian itself: the American experience, fossils and flight, film and theater, art and music, work and leisure, ethnic diversity, gardens and social change. Weighty topics are to be expected: there’s a new traveling version of our major exhibition on the American Presidency in the National Museum of American History. But SITES keeps an eye out for the offbeat and fanciful as well: "Lunch Box Memories" salutes the 20th-century history of the American school lunch box, that metal madeleine with the power to turn purposeful grown-ups into carefree kids again. On the boxes’ colored surfaces one can trace the rise and fall of cultural heroes, from Hopalong Cassidy to Rambo, and read the passing fancies of an age.

The experience of viewing Smithsonian exhibitions in distant and sometimes unconventional settings is necessarily different from the physical experience on-site in Washington. But every Smithsonian display, no matter how grand or compact or where set down, is informed by the same spirit of intellectual curiosity, the same commitment to inquiry, explanation and connection. That spirit can loom all the larger in a local space. With every exhibition it imagines and conveys, SITES is helping to build a Smithsonian that more fully encompasses America.

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