Smithsonian Perspectives

It’s our 150th anniversary, and we plan to celebrate all year long — by bringing the Smithsonian home to you

On New Year's Day 1996, the Smithsonian will officially launch its 150th-anniversary celebration in a special way. Hundreds of millions of television spectators of the 1996 Tournament of Roses parade will see the Smithsonian's unprecedented participation in this highly popular event. Our entry will highlight the most ambitious of all our anniversary activities, the centerpiece of our national outreach efforts: a traveling exhibition entitled "America's Smithsonian."

As I previewed for you in an earlier Perspectives, the national tour of this exhibition will open in Los Angeles on February 9. It will ultimately reach more than ten million people as it moves around the country over a two-year period. The 100,000-square-foot show will be booked into convention centers and will feature more than 300 treasures and national icons, most of which have never been away from their Smithsonian homes: First Ladies' gowns, Tecumseh's tomahawk, Arthur Ashe's tennis racquet, Auguste Rodin's Walking Man, the Apollo 14 command module, and hundreds more.

To finance this traveling exhibition — and to enable us to take it to the people of our country without admission fees — as well as to fund a yearlong program of promotion and information on the CBS television network, we have launched a "Corporate Partner Program." Our collaboration with CBS will result in "Smithsonian Minutes," which will be aired throughout the year, each featuring a little-known fact about the Institution and its collections. In addition, CBS will produce a one-hour special in January and a live broadcast of our 150th-birthday party from the Mall on August 10. The full cooperation of the corporate world in our 150th celebration will help us to reach our goal of national outreach and involvement.

Traveling in tandem with the exhibition will be an especially interesting program — "Voices of Discovery" — organized by the Smithsonian Associates. Through the "Voices" program, ten distinguished scholars will each spend five days in settings ranging from formal university- and museum-based lecture halls to television talk shows, elementary schools and civic-group meetings. These scholars will represent our effort to share the human and intellectual resources of the Institution concurrently with the physical resources to be featured in the traveling exhibition.

Several major new exhibitions will be held in 1996. For example, the National Portrait Gallery will open "1846" in April and "Red, Hot and Blue" in October. At the National Air and Space Museum, "How Things Fly" and "Cosmic Voyage" will attract millions of visitors. And the fully renovated Janet Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals will reopen in the National Museum of Natural History in December.

Smithsonian magazine will publish a special 150th-anniversary issue in May, and Smithsonian Books and Alfred A. Knopf have jointly published James Conaway's colorful history, The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder. An anniversary bell, the gift of the A. T. Cross Company (also founded in 1846), will be on public view in the Smithsonian Castle beginning in January. Cast at the Whitechapel Foundry in London, it will be hoisted into the Castle tower and will ring out for the first time on August 10.

The Smithsonian National Board will travel (at their own expense) to England in the spring to hold an official meeting at James Smithson's alma mater, Pembroke College, Oxford University. In June, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute will host an international symposium to draw public and scholarly attention to the plight of coral reefs around the world.

In planning these and other celebratory activities, we paused to find out just how Americans look at the Smithsonian and what they expect of it. For instance, we discovered that the Smithsonian is really a personal experience; nearly half of all adult Americans say that they have visited one of our museums at some point in their lives. We also discovered that our name recognition is extraordinarily high, with more than 82 percent of all adult Americans having heard of the Smithsonian.

This kind of information validated our determination to foster an increased sense of "public ownership" of the Institution and make it more accessible to more people. We have tried, most of all, to be worthy of the deep affection for the Smithsonian that an overwhelming majority of Americans seem to feel.

I look forward to opening "America's Smithsonian" in each of its venues and to the "Members' Night" that will be held in each city during the exhibition. It will bring me great satisfaction to talk with our members and friends during the Smithsonian's 150th year and to hear from you directly if we have met our goals — and your expectations.

From all of us at the Smithsonian, Happy New Year; and to all of us -- staff, members and friends -- Happy Birthday!

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.