As a curator at the National Museum of American History in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to lead a team opening an exhibition of Smithsonian musical and historical artifacts just outside Tokyo. Going into this project, I expected that we would learn enormously from our Japanese counterparts about their museums, their history, their strategies. And certainly, I did. What I hadn’t been expecting was that they would also teach me about America.
One never sees the United States in the same light after viewing it from afar. Though Japanese and American history look very different, my time in Japan challenged me to grapple with the commonalities across our experiences, and understand my work from a broader international perspective. My career as a historian of Black America was made richer, more complicated and more nuanced through the lessons of the Japanese past.
This past year impressed on me the importance of an international perspective, not just in my individual career, but for the museum field as a whole. As the co-chair of the U.S. branch of the International Council of Museums during these months of pandemic, I saw the power of strong global collaborations. Sharing timelines and plans for reopening, offering suggestions on digital strategies, debating the field’s best paths for moving forward. These conversations were crucial in helping the Smithsonian weather this crisis and, more broadly, in imagining the responsibilities of our institution in a post-pandemic world.
One of the Smithsonian’s great strengths is its ability to collaborate across a range of fields—science, conservation, cultural, and community engagement. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama leads a global network of forest research sites to conduct unprecedented and long-term conservation research. The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative works with communities to preserve cultural heritage and history in sites threatened by war or natural disaster. The Event Horizon Telescope, co-founded and led by Smithsonian astrophysicists, is an international collaboration to understand the very fabric of the universe itself. These are only a few examples of the Smithsonian’s astounding international work.
As the United States recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic and grapples with its place on the global stage, the Smithsonian has an opportunity to make a real difference, not just for our citizens, but for our colleagues and communities across the world.