Secretary Lonnie Bunch on the Year Ahead for Museums

After a year fraught with challenges, we must build on our strengths for a common purpose

Carriage of Ulysses S. Grant
The carriage that Ulysses S. Grant rode to his second inauguration is one of 900 items in the exhibition "The American Presidency." Smithsonian National Museum of American History

As much as the new year is a time for new hopes and new resolutions, it also invites us to reflect. With the Smithsonian planning for the busy year ahead, I find myself looking back over my years at this institution, at the moments that have shaped my professional and personal life. Two decades have passed since my team raced to finish the exhibition “The American Presidency,” opening just ahead of the inauguration of President George W. Bush. This February marks the fourth Black History Month since the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for which I proudly served as founding director. And the year I’ve spent as Smithsonian Secretary has been one of striving and sprinting to respond to seismic shifts that have shaken the foundations of this country. Each of these experiences, fraught with challenges, has shown me how much we can accomplish when we come together for a common purpose.

The past 12 months, especially, have been a lesson in how the Smithsonian can serve our public. We can grow our digital capabilities to reach new audiences. We can work closely with teachers, students and families to provide invaluable educational support. We can marshal our expertise and our collections to facilitate productive conversations around the most divisive issues.

In moments of crisis, people turn to institutions they trust. This past year demonstrated how important it is to protect our institutions, and in turn, how those institutions must work to help their communities. The challenges of a pandemic spurred the Smithsonian to collaborate more closely than ever with museum colleagues across the globe, with school districts across the country, and with leaders in local communities. Time and time again, I have been humbled by the faith they put in us.

Among all the resources that we have at our disposal-—historic collections, groundbreaking research, deep scholarly expertise—perhaps our most precious is public trust. For many years, museums have ranked among the nation’s most trusted institutions. As confidence in other public-facing institutions falters, museums remain safe havens. The public counts on us to safeguard culture, heritage and knowledge.

I am inspired by staff members across the Institution who are helping our audiences endure hardship and pursue hope. Together with you, our readers, and the entire Smithsonian community, I look forward to a creative and fulfilling new year.

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This article is a selection from the January/February issue of Smithsonian magazine