When “Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America” opened at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2009, it explored the cultural cross-pollination between Native American teenagers and the “outsider” sport they’d adopted. The exhibition didn’t simply skid to a halt when it closed on the National Mall, though: It rolled across the country, a journey that included a 19-week stay at the Museum of Man in San Diego in 2012. From there “Ramp It Up” moved to the Sicangu Heritage Center, in Mission, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and last month it opened at the Littleton Museum, in Littleton, Colorado. By the time the exhibition finishes the nationwide tour in late 2014, it will have visited at least nine museums and cultural centers.
Betsy Gordon, curator of the show, recalls a twinge of nervousness as she led hardcore California skateboarders on a tour of “Ramp It Up” in San Diego. But in the end, a dreadlocked skater conceded to her that it was all “straight-up legit.” The mutually beneficial show allowed the Smithsonian to go West and helped the museum tap into a younger-than-usual audience.
Last year, through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibitions Service, some five million people saw 46 of our exhibitions in 455 public spaces. The most popular were “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer”; “American Sabor: Latinos in Popular Music”; and “Black Wings: American Dreams of Flight,” devoted to African-American pioneers of aviation.
Traveling exhibitions are part of the Smithsonian’s national reach, and so is Smithsonian Affiliates, a partnership with 178 museums in 41 states, plus Puerto Rico and Panama. The Affiliates get loans of objects, lectures by curators and access to a growing array of digital programs. Through the Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos program, for instance, students at affiliate science museums can remotely operate telescopes of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and work with our scientists in interpreting the data.
In February, the Riverside Metropolitan Museum in Riverside, California, sponsored Smithsonian Citizen Science Week. Among other events, visitors learned how to identify plants during a hike with Smithsonian botanist Rusty Russell.
Sometimes our artifacts just need to get out and stretch their legs. Bill Cooke, director of the International Museum of the Horse, in Lexington, Kentucky, says he felt he had “died and gone to heaven” when the skeleton of Lexington, one of the most successful stud horses in history, arrived on loan from the Smithsonian in 2010. Lexington nearly single-handedly revived Kentucky’s thoroughbred business after the Civil War, and local breeders and history buffs have been beating a path to the museum. Excitement like that explains why we won’t wait for you to travel to us: We will meet you where you live, too.