In September 1965, the Smithsonian commemorated the 200th anniversary of founder James Smithson’s birth. President Lyndon Johnson delivered remarks on the occasion, noting that “our Nation’s first great benefactor” had bequeathed us three noble ideas: “learning respects no geographic boundaries,” “partnership between Government and private enterprise can serve the greater good of both” and “the spread of learning must be the first work of a nation that seeks to be free.”
We value milestones like these, not just to celebrate, but to connect with who we are and to see how far we have come. One such pivotal event for the Smithsonian took place in 1967, when the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum opened in a former theater in Southeast Washington, D.C. Despite its humble beginnings, its ambitions were great, featuring exhibitions and educational programs that were innovative, interactive and intimately connected to the community.
Today, the Anacostia Community Museum is a model for a museum serving people in its community. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the museum, curators took their planned “Food for the People” exhibition outdoors, exposing the persistent problems of food inequities in the Washington, D.C. area and highlighting potential solutions. When the museum reopened, an in-gallery exhibition expanded and enhanced the experience for visitors.
We’re preparing for another milestone next year: the centennial of the Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian’s first art museum. The groundbreaking took place in September 1916, but World War I delayed construction. It opened to the public in 1923, exhibiting artwork from Asia, 19th-century American paintings and James Whistler’s famous Peacock Room—complete with live peacocks roaming the courtyard.
The conservation department of the Freer Gallery, now part of the National Museum of Asian Art, performs cutting-edge work. Its East Asian Painting Conservation Studio, for example, blends modern and traditional techniques to preserve Japanese and Chinese artwork and transcends geographic boundaries by training international conservation professionals. The celebrated Peacock Room is undergoing conservation for the first time in 30 years and will reopen this September with a new installation of ceramics from Syria, Egypt, Korea, China and Japan.
As we look forward to the development of our newest Smithsonian museums, these mainstays remind us that cultural institutions can and must be places that respect history without being held captive by the past. I think both James Smithson and LBJ would be astonished by these museums’ impact today and the innovative ways the Smithsonian serves people around the world.