It began as a simple enough notion in 1996: open the attic. The characterization of the Smithsonian as the "nation’s attic" is not without a sting, an attic being the space to which things are consigned when their useful time has past: the trunk of out-of-fashion clothes, the lopsided rocking chair, the baby carriage, the 78-rpm records (indeed, any records). But much of what’s in storage at the Smithsonian is there not because it has no value or interest but because we lack the room to show it. The fact is, at any one time, the Smithsonian can display less than 2 percent of the 142 million items it owns. Think of a Super Bowl with only the quarterbacks on the field and all their teammates in the locker room.
So the idea of Smithsonian Affiliations was born. Why not display the unseen items elsewhere in the country? There’s no shortage of museums in America. What is in short supply is the material to fill them. Smithsonian Affiliations throws open the doors of the Institution. It establishes long-term collaborative relationships with museums and cultural organizations, and gives them access to the Smithsonian’s collections and educational and outreach resources. With our enthusiastic diffusion of artifacts and programs, the Institution’s service to the nation has taken a new turn—or rather, a whole set of new turns. North, south, east and west, on banners, billboards and invitations, the words "in association with the Smithsonian Institution" are appearing with increasing frequency. There are currently 92 affiliates in 30 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Panama, and their number is on the rise. Our steadfast goal is that the Institution have a presence throughout the nation.
Some affiliates are nationally known (the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, for example) and some one day will be (the Alameda in San Antonio), but all are locally prized. They encompass an immense range of geography and interests, as a random selection from their number makes clear: Inventure Place, home of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in Akron, Ohio; the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum in Arizona; the Fort Peck Dam Interpretive Center and Museum in Montana; the Kona Historical Society in Hawaii; the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles; the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh; the Miami Museum of Science in Florida; the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Each affiliation represents a saga of cooperation and enrichment.
Lately there’s been a benefit to the program that we did not initially foresee: it is encouraging broader cultural alliances. In the first such effort, 26 affiliates with interests in Latino culture will share research and collaborate on exhibitions, performances, lecture series and other programs. Additional alliances are in the works, developed around Native American, Asian Pacific and African-American cultures. Institutions that signed on originally to work with the Smithsonian are discovering how beneficial they can be to one another.
I urge you to view the full roster of affiliates on the Web site, affiliations.si.edu, for the program represents a new way of looking at America, through a grid of interests as extensive as the contours of the country. The universe of affiliates defines the things communities and regions have felt compelled to celebrate and preserve. Here is a nation of relentless intellectual curiosity. It abounds with museums, historical societies and cultural organizations, and takes nothing for granted. The interests are often locally born, but they have in common the large impulse to connect to a vital portion of the past and say "This, too, matters."
The fresh air of invention that flows through these scores of far-flung affiliates is finding its way back to the Smithsonian, and the dust it has blown from the nation’s attic won’t be settling any time soon.