Phenomena, Comment and Notes
Looking at the Smithsonian from the inside: A ‘random sample’ of anthropologists, biologists and geologists explain why it is an inimitable place to work
Before you can talk about anything, you have to know what it is; you must be able to define it. For a column marking our parent institution's 150th anniversary, I was going to have a go at defining the place myself. But then it occurred to me: Who better to do this than some of the 6,500 men and women who work here? So I picked out a baker's dozen and challenged them to come up with a definition in one sentence or at most one paragraph, but no more. "What to you," the question read, "is the essence of the Smithsonian?"
The sample is totally unscientific. We could not encompass the whole Smithsonian in one issue last month, and it certainly cannot be done in one column. So I talked only to people in the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. These are biologists, anthropologists and geologists, people I've met over the years who I thought would have something to say. They did.
Here, for example, is George Zug, a curator of reptiles and amphibians at Natural History. He e-mailed his reply as he left for the field: "For me [the essence] is the opportunity to satisfy the curiosity in our souls. This applies equally to someone visiting our exhibits and to my own search for unknowns in the biology of sea turtles or the relationship of two gecko species in the South Pacific."
Gene Morton is a research ornithologist at the National Zoological Park. He put it this way: "Above all, the Smithsonian creates one great empirical theory of the way life adapts to Earth through the natural history knowledge its scientists create and pass on."
Fish and shark expert Victor Springer, a curator at the Natural History museum, took a few extra words: "When the American people think of the Smithsonian, they think MUSEUM — good show. As a kid I dreamt of the day I could visit the Smithsonian and see the displays of the great variety of life past and present. What I, and the public, did not think about were the scientist-scholars whose curiosity drove them to collect all those things in the show, to study those things in order to give them meaning, and to impart that meaning by publishing and bringing into being the exhibits that so attract not only their fellow Americans but people from all over the world."
Dennis Stanford, an anthropologist who heads up the Paleoindian/Paleoecology Project, says he has found the best possible place to work. "Anthropology in the United States had its earliest beginnings at the Smithsonian. This is the center for paleoindian research, and has been since Day One. Today our department is a crossroads for hundreds of scholars. Talking to all these people, I gain firsthand knowledge of what is going on all over the Western Hemisphere. It's the perfect place for synthesis."
Don Ortner is an anthropologist who studies human adaptation and disease in ancient peoples. He has just finished a two-year stint as acting director of the National Museum of Natural History. "I fell in love with the place at age 13. Looking at specimen labels inside all those dark cherry cabinets, I would take pages of notes, never thinking I'd be on the staff some day," he says.
"It's a place where you can ask, What are the really important scientific problems? and then work on them. It is vital for great nations to have such places. I think curiosity is genetic. Our ancestors wanted to understand natural phenomena-for example, What are the stars? It is just as important for scientists today to pursue the important questions of our time and share this knowledge with others."
Stan Shetler is a botanist and former deputy director of the museum who also has filled in as acting director. He explains that the Smithsonian is "a citadel of learning where scholars pursue basic answers to questions of natural heritage and human existence." It is also, he says, "the national keeper and interpreter of the material record of the American odyssey, its explorations, discoveries, and scientific, technological and cultural achievements."
Asked about our place in biology, he says, "We are the only national institution devoted to the discovery and elucidation of biodiversity across a broad range of plant and animal groups, not just in North America, but around the globe. Our role in the broad sense has been as the nation's keepers of the catalog of nature, and we are unique in the depth and breadth of both our collections and our expertise."
Jonathan Coddington, a spider researcher and chairman of the entomology department (and the spokesman for taxonomy in the May issue): "The Institution's natural history collections are the biological, geological and anthropological 'reference library' for the nation. The greatest diversity of species on Earth is here at Natural History. There are, for example, more beetles and flies per square foot in our entomology collections than in any tropical forest anywhere on Earth, bar none."
Dick Fiske is a volcanologist and former director of the Natural History museum. "The Smithsonian is the keeper of our national — and natural — heritage. It is regarded by the American people as a citadel on a hill. We have to try to live up to that reputation: our job is to keep doing good things."
Senior scientist Dave Pawson, who studies sea urchins and sea cucumbers around the world, was specific: "From my laboratory, where I am studying sea urchins found in the deep ocean around the Bahama Islands, I can walk a few steps to the collections and find the same species, some collected 120 years ago! I can dissect the stomachs of specimens in the collections to study feeding preferences and learn that year-round this species feeds exclusively on turtle grass dislodged from shallow water by storm waves. And the turtle grass beds are disappearing."
Devra Kleiman is the assistant director for research at the National Zoo. She says: "The [Institution] traditionally supports long-term, multi-disciplinary research. Smithsonian scientists can therefore pursue research questions that may require decades to answer and may be critical to the development of new models, new disciplines and revolutionary approaches to old issues. I doubt that I could have developed the multi-zoo, multi-institution, multi-national, multi-disciplinary program for the conservation of the golden lion tamarin [a small, spectacular monkey that had been on the verge of extinction in the wild] and its habitat in Brazil, which has become a model for international conservation programs, without the solid support base provided by the Smithsonian and the National Zoological Park."
Lisa Stevens is a curator who specializes in primates and giant pandas. "The essence of the Smithsonian is captured for me," Stevens says, "when a visitor is engaged and enthralled by viewing a collection object. At the Zoo these objects are living ambassadors of endangered species. I recall and reexperience this excitement daily, through the visitors' eyes."
Katherine Ralls, a research zoologist, delineated the impact of the Zoo: "This environment has enabled me to contribute to the welfare of endangered or threatened species, including southern sea otters, Hawaiian monk seals, San Joaquin kit foxes and California condors."
Zoo curator John Seidensticker has devoted his life to the big cats of the world, especially tigers and mountain lions. Here is his take on the Smithsonian: "I keep relating to something that happened 20 years ago. My mother grew up in Whitehall, Montana, where her father was a railroad section foreman. When she first came to Washington 20 years ago, she went to see the steam locomotive at what is now the National Museum of American History. The sight of it, and the soundtrack that was played, brought tears to her eyes. That's powerful. The message is really in the experience.
"What I do is try to use this little space here we call a zoo to help visitors gain perspective on the world and our place in it. I want them to take a hard look at the animals, to see them, to ask questions, until the animals become theirs. Once that happens, they will not allow these animals to become extinct."
Jim Lynch is an ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. He works there and in the Yucatan, Australia and Kenya, learning what happens to birds when the habitats they depend on are disturbed by hurricanes, wildfires or clearing for agriculture. He takes an overall view: "To me, the Smithsonian embodies the richness of human history, culture and science. Its unique strengths are its independence, inclusiveness, continuity, devotion to excellence and, of course, its staggering magnitude. What a place to work!"