January 27th, 2002

Why I Think The Smithsonian Is Misguided

By Milo Beach
Washington Post

In a recent article commenting on the appointment of a new director for the British Museum, the London columnist Richard Dorment wrote:

"The scary moment has passed when it looked as though the government might succeed in imposing a director who saw the job as little different from running a company in the City: fiscal responsibility + populist exhibitions + healthy attendance figures = success."

What London avoided was granted to the Smithsonian Institution with the appointment of Lawrence Small as secretary, however, and the result has diminished both the institution and the cultural life of this country. No aspect of this situation is more important than the effect it has had on perceptions of the scholarly integrity of the Smithsonian.

Judging from recent words and deeds, the present administration of the institution views the life of the mind with astonishing indifference. The secretary, for example, spoke to the assembled staff of the National Museum of American History and left the distinct impression with many that the day of curiosity-driven research was over at the Smithsonian. In other words, learning how to ask questions about the world we live in and then exploring possible answers—which is really all that "research" means—is not an appropriate activity for Smithsonian staff.

Nor, by implication, is this something the Smithsonian should encourage among its visitors. Perhaps this explains thosestatements by the secretary that the Smithsonian’s mission—to increase and diffuse knowledge, according to the initial Smithson bequest—is now to raise money and modernize.

I recently retired as director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. On a return visit to Washington last fall, a former colleague, the head of a major research activity at the institution, reported to me that an undersecretary had just directed him no longer to use the word "research"; he was to speak only of "education."

When describing last spring my own future research projects to the secretary, I was told, in terms that he doubtless considered "blisteringly clear," that I was not to pursue any of those interests or even think about those topics until after I retired. (This despite the fact that my job description included the phrase "maintains own research.") I was to concentrate, he said, solely on fundraising and bringing more people to the galleries. These are activities that always provided great personal satisfaction when used to promote the collections of the galleries and the research of its staff, but are pointless in a museum context when practiced for their own sake.

Most importantly, through this remark Secretary Small made clear that (in his view) a museum director should not be actively engaged with the collections and programs that give identity to her or his museum; a director’s duties should be restricted to fundraising and public affairs. Nothing could have more effectively confirmed my decision to leave the Smithsonian.

Dorment, in his article, continued: "A museum depends on its scholars for its lifeblood. Without their expertise, everything a museum does—the preservation and display of the collections, the acquisitions, exhibitions, publications, and cataloguing—is either badly done, or lacks point and purpose. . . . The director of a museum . . . is an inspirational figure, with a profound knowledge of his subject and a clear vision of what a museum is doing and where it is going."

Before I left the institution, the Freer and Sackler were seeking a new curator of ancient Chinese art, an area in which the collections of both galleries are internationally important. Nonetheless, one administrator told me we should not be seeking a scholar for the position, but instead someone who was a good administrator. But if the head of the institution does not understand scholarship; if none of his rapidly expanding group of administrative assistants will question policies initiated by the secretary; if museum directors are effectively reduced to being members of the central development office; if curators are to be chosen for their administrative ability; and if visitors are not to be introduced to new discoveries and encouraged to think about the world they inhabit, why does the Smithsonian exist? Certainly not for the increase and diffusion of knowledge—which also places into question the Smithsonian’s respect for its commitments to past donors.

Asking questions, exploring a full range of answers, and thinking for oneself—activities in which America has long prided itself—have always been at the heart of the Smithsonian Institution. They have never been more important than today, as current events have revealed with excruciating clarity. The American public needs the Smithsonian Institution to put aside the new directions imposed by Secretary Small and to work once again to inspire and support the creative ideas that come from lives driven by curiosity.


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