Secretary Lonnie Bunch Reflects on the Smithsonian’s 175th Birthday

The Institution’s leader looks back on a vibrant history—and ahead to the next two museums

Bison at Smithsonian Castle
Two American bison grazed in a paddock behind the Castle. A few years later, in 1891, they joined the first animals at the new National Zoo. Smithsonian Institution Archives

After a year of absence, returning to my office in the Smithsonian Castle has renewed my wonder in the history that surrounds me and in the growth that nearly two centuries has brought. I walk past the crypt of James Smithson, who first envisioned this institution. I stroll through the Enid A. Haupt Garden, home to several American bison in the late 1880s. I pass through rooms that held the Smithsonian’s earliest collections, 19th-century herbarium specimens and technical apparatuses. I arrive at my office, where for decades my predecessors and I have pondered the same question: How can the Smithsonian best serve the American people?

This year, the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, offers an opportunity to remember where we’ve been and appreciate what we’ve accomplished. And especially after all the nation has been through, it’s a chance to assess our impact and imagine what the institution can become.

Perhaps nothing speaks to our future like the two new museums on the horizon—the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino. With the successes of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian, we learned that telling the American story through different lenses serves all our audiences better, regardless of background or experience. These next museums will help the Smithsonian represent the American experience more fully. By sharing new and powerful stories, they can help all Americans develop a more nuanced, more vibrant understanding of our heritage, our culture and our national story.

This process of creating these museums comes at an opportune moment. The pandemic has challenged the Smithsonian to grow more digitally adept and become more creative, more responsive to audiences’ needs. The new museums will put these lessons into action, models for what museums can and should look like in a post-pandemic world. Having built a museum from the ground up, I know from experience that we have a long way to go. We’ve named two interim directors and have begun the process of putting together boards and permanent leadership. Still to come: selecting sites, hiring staff, building world-class collections, designing exhibitions, building the museums themselves.

The road toward opening will not be easy or quick. But it will be worth it. When these museums open their doors to the public, they will embody the original vision for the Smithsonian as places that enable us all to learn more about ourselves, our country and our world.

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