Smithsonian Perspectives

Over 150 years, the Smithsonian has evolved as a visitor-friendly place that reflects a diverse nation

What a remarkable opportunity I have had in my first years as Secretary not only to join in the celebration of this great Institution's vitality but also to reflect on what we have become at this moment in our history. There are many ways to evaluate the modern Smithsonian: the size and quality of its collections; the scope and effect of its research; and the sweep of exhibitions, publications and programs that serve the millions whose public and private support makes everything that we do possible. But of all that we note and celebrate about the Smithsonian of today, it is the Institution's evolving spirit and character as the "people's place" that I believe has won it a cherished role in the national life.

From our vantage point in the late 20th century, it may be hard to recognize how pioneering the Smithsonian's mandate was at its creation and how far it had to go to reach the scope of its present commitment. Smithson's charge that we dedicate ourselves not only to the increase but the diffusion of knowledge came from ideals of the time that knowledge should not be limited to a few.

That idea of public access to education took some time to develop at the Smithsonian. For most of our first 100 years, this was a good place to look at some marvels of nature and culture, but not necessarily to learn much about them. Also, like most museums before the Second World War, our ideas at that time of what was "museum-worthy" for our collections look quite restrictive by today's standards.

As it happened, I showed up in Washington as a young law clerk in the 1950s just as the groundwork was beginning to be laid for the Smithsonian we now know. My vantage point was pretty good, since my wife, Therese, went to work at the Smithsonian's numismatic division during our time here.

The Secretary at the time was Leonard Carmichael, who had arrived in 1953. To see his portrait photograph, taken in 1960 (and reproduced in The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder by James Conaway), you would never know that within that gentleman in the dark suit beat the heart of a museum revolutionary. Carmichael expanded the program to modernize exhibits, redesigning them as places to excite visitors' imaginations and to impart the knowledge of the curators.

Carmichael also actively supported the campaign to create the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). That museum soon began to symbolize the Smithsonian's growing recognition of its role as a people's museum. Opened one month before the arrival of the next Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, in 1964, it developed a policy of collecting objects that were not only one-of-a-kind or associated with historic individuals and events, but also those that came directly out of everyday lives. The National Museum of American History became a place where a G.I. might show his grandchild a cot very much like the one he slept on during World War II, and where that grandchild could also see a jacket associated with a beloved television character. History, we were discovering, was about all of us.

During Ripley's 20 years as Secretary, the modern Smithsonian came into being. He knew that museums had to be about more than preserving the past. He honored the interests, values and needs of Smithsonian visitors. In his time the Festival of American Folklife introduced visitors to the customs, music and energy of peoples around the country and the world. Ripley started this magazine and the membership programs, and put the Carousel on the Mall, where it's a lively attraction.

As Ripley's tenure ended, he foresaw a new era of social responsibility for the Institution, which became the mark of Robert McCormick Adams' decade as Secretary. In the Adams years, more and more Americans from our many cultures could see their achievements represented and their issues addressed at the Smithsonian. The vitality of the American mix came to be reflected in collecting, in exhibitions and programs, and in the composition of the staff.

The Adams years also made the Institution more visitor-oriented, by placing a greater emphasis not only on the curators' messages but on the visitors' responses, as well. The Smithsonian began a new series of interviews with visitors, comment books showed up at the end of exhibitions, and we began to ask ourselves how to involve those represented in our collections and exhibitions in the process of interpretation.

This was the Smithsonian whose guidance I inherited two years ago. I have tried to build upon my predecessors' legacies by focusing on the question of increasing national access to the remarkable collections and expertise we have accumulated over 150 years. It has been my pleasure to see the crowds of Americans at the "America's Smithsonian" tour able to visit their Smithsonian without having to travel far from home; and to encourage the development of the electronic Smithsonian to deliver more information to more people.

If there is one moment that has come to symbolize for me the Smithsonian's identity as a people's place it was that perfect late-summer weekend when we held our Birthday Party on the Mall. As one of the performers put it, for a moment Washington felt like an ideal small town, where we all came together in shared curiosity and inspiration. We don't always get it right; but when we do, this is a magical place.

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