Increase, Diffusion and…Inspiration

What an honor it is to have my first column appear in Smithsonian during the first month of the year 2000. It is a thrill and a privilege to lead the Smithsonian at a time when knowledge is expanding at the fastest pace in human history, making this institution more important than ever.

When James Smithson, an English scientist, died 171 years ago, he left a will saying that if his nephew died without children, his considerable fortune should go to the United States "to found at establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." That is precisely what happened after Congress set up the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. But not even James Smithson could have imagined what his legacy would mean to the American people.

Nothing in the world is remotely analogous to the Smithsonian. The world's largest museum complex, it has 16 different museums and galleries, the National Zoo and a variety of major research facilities. More than 400 buildings contain roughly 7.5 million square feet, the equivalent of 156 football fields. The collections held by the various divisions of the Smithsonian are huge, global in scope, and of incalculable value. With more than 140 million objects and specimens — not counting holdings in libraries and archives — less than 2 percent of our collection is on display at any one time.

Millions of specimens document the minerals, rocks, gems, plants, insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles of the United States. We have the world's largest, most important collection of American Indian objects, and an unparalleled assembly of archaeological and ethnological items. We have thousands and thousands of items representing European, African, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Asian and Pacific Island history and culture. Together, it is a cultural pageant that tells the wondrous story of the United States' attracting people from around the world and forging a democratic society, the most innovative and productive force in world history.

You will find George Washington's tent here, the desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Bell's early telephones, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers' plane. Also here are more than 50,000 American artworks dating from Colonial times to the present, and some 13 million items in the world's largest archival collection documenting the history of art in America. And, of course, the Smithsonian has thousands of other books, films, records, tapes and compact disks covering just about every aspect of America's history.

Essentially, the Smithsonian Institution is our national center of cultural heritage, the repository of the creativity, the curiosity, the innovative spirit and the courage of conviction of the American people. A look at the achievements of those who have come before us underscores how resourceful and ingenious Americans are. It drives home how willing our society has been to accept challenges.

As we prepare for our journey through the 21st century, the Smithsonian has an even greater role to play than in the past. Our nation is more populous than it has ever been — 273 million strong. In addition, the country now has the largest absolute number of residents in its history who were born somewhere else — one out of every ten people. The challenge of providing educational resources to those who have come from elsewhere, as well as to all other U.S. residents, so they can learn about our past achievements, our current accomplishments and our future prospects, is enormous. I shall talk about how the Smithsonian plans to meet that challenge in future notes.

Last year, more than 35 million visits were made to exhibitions created by the Smithsonian. No other educational and cultural institution has visitation of this magnitude. Some people learned how the earth was formed, others about plant and animal life in North America. Some encountered works of art that gave them pleasure or fired their imaginations. Still others discovered aspects of American history that they had not known about before.

More important, millions of people were inspired. Inspired by what has gone into creating a great nation and a great people, and by who we are today. Inspired by our national past to be optimistic about the future. Secretary I. Michael Heyman and his team can be justly proud of the momentum they generated during the past five years. The Smithsonian Institution approaches the 21st century with the same sense of promise it held at the time of its creation. Alive and well, it has become more than anyone ever dreamed. And in doing so, it has added a major role to its mission of increase and diffusion. It has become an engine of inspiration to us all.

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