Pipelines to the Public

Through innovative outreach programs, the Smithsonian extends its resources far and wide

For most of its 151 years, the Smithsonian has been easily available to Americans only if they have been able to visit the nation's capital or our museums in New York. And every year millions have, in school groups, with their families and on business trips. In fact, 80 percent of our visitors travel to our Washington, D.C. museums from regions outside the metropolitan area.

Still, as someone who has spent most of his adult life in California, far from these museums and monuments, I have encouraged the Smithsonian's growing commitment to make its resources and expertise available to Americans wherever they live. Our goal is to increase accessibility for those who visit us in Washington and want to continue to benefit from Smithsonian programs at home, and to provide new opportunities for other Americans to be served by their national museum complex even if they cannot join us on the Mall.

Our national initiative takes many forms. You, who are reading this magazine in the comfort of your own homes (or is it in a doctor's office?), are already aware of one of the most important examples of our national outreach. Smithsonian has more than two million subscribers.

Equally important in our national focus is the Institution's program of touring exhibitions, as well as our rich presence on the World Wide Web and our new resolve to build associations with museums around the country by sharing our collections through long-term loans. We are making an extended commitment to educational outreach and to increasing our participation in television and films.

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) has been our major means for taking Smithsonian exhibitions nationwideand a great success story. SITES started small in its efforts to package Smithsonian exhibits for travel and to identify exhibits that had potential for a national audience. Though originally supported by nonfederal funds, its importance as an outreach resource for cities and towns across America led Congress to supplement its annual operating budget in 1992.

To commemorate our sesquicentennial, the Smithsonian took hundreds of our most treasured objects to America's hometowns. "America's Smithsonian" has traveled to nine cities and has welcomed about three million visitors.

The electronic Smithsonian has provided us with another delivery system for the Institution's resources and expertise. Smithsonian's World Wide Web site has more than 40 hours of continuous material, the creations of curators and other Smithsonian staff. The site now welcomes about ten million "hits" a month, 20 percent of them international in origin.

Our "affiliations" program is among our boldest but is still in its infancy. We lend Smithsonian objects to museums that want to display them on a long-term basis and are willing and able to finance the costs of borrowing, exhibition and maintenance. The advantages are evident: more people can benefit from our collections, and we can share the costs of conservation. The Smithsonian and participating museums will each be strengthened.

National outreach in the Smithsonian of the Nineties also takes the form of increasing cooperation with classroom-based teaching. Our Smithsonian Resource Guides for Teachers lists 455 items, including science kits and inventive curriculum plans such as Image and Identity: Clothing and Adolescence in the 1990s, which explores the clues that clothing provides to understanding culture. We have recently launched a Natural Partners Initiative, which uses technology to link classrooms to Smithsonian scholars and exhibits. Also new is our program with cultural institutions and schools in Cleveland to apply what we have learned at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center about the uses of museums as learning centers for preschool children.

So it is fair to say that the modern Smithsonian is everywhere. We may even be coming soon to your television set and movie theater. We are working with Creative Artists Agency to locate partners who will help us create quality programming in these two important and pervasive areas of popular culture. In the context of public television and Imax films, we have already created programs in which we take great pride.

The Smithsonian will continue to find innovative ways to make itself available to you wherever you live. You should expect no less of your national museum.

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