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Celebrating Arts & Culture with the Smithsonian Institution

October 27, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, the Smithsonian Institution launched its first-ever comprehensive capital campaign, an ambitious effort to transform this national treasure into an institution fully prepared to meet the challenges and responsibilities of the 21st Century.

While I unable to attend the weekend of events and activities (because of a previous commitment, not a lack of interest), there were a number of "behind-the-scenes" programs that displayed the wide breath of interests and areas of expertise housed in the various museums that make up the Smithsonian.

Examples included (naming just a few):

  • Banjo History and the American Experience
  • Monuments Men and Preserving Cultural Heritage During Disasters
  • Caring for Rare Books
  • Conserving Contemporary Art
  • Techniques to Conserve Artifacts Such as the Jefferson Bible
  • 3D Digitization at the Smithsonian
  • All That Jazz
  • What Was Photography?

Activities also included a hard-hat tour of the construction site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

These events came on the heels of the release of the Smithsonian's 2013 Annual Report, which is entitled, "People. Passion. Purpose." Besides the usual financial information, the report highlights a few of the 6,000 individuals who work in the Smithsonian's museums, national programs and research centers around the world.

As Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough says in his opening statement, its "rich and vast collections differentiate us from every other museum on the planet, but it is our people that truly distinguish us. From astrophysics and American art to sociology and zoology, they represent a staggering breath of knowledge and depth of commitment, yet the most exciting thing to watch is what happens when they come together across disciplines."

A few of arts and culture-related individuals who stood out for me include:

  • Seb Chan. Innovator and media expert responsible for nothing less than Cooper Hewitt's complete digital renewal and re-imaging, Seb also acquired the first work of digital code for the museum's collection. The iPad music app Planetary uses the visual metaphor of celestial bodies; planets represent albums and moons represent songs, with the brightness and position of each varying according to frequency of playback. As part of its presentation strategy - and with the developer's blessing - the app's underlying source code has been publically released.
  • Ann McMullen. An expert in Native North America and curator for the American Indian Museum, Ann expanded her portfolio with the stunning exhibition, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed. Collaborating with George Mason University's Alexander Benitez and the Smithsonian Latino Center, she helped tell the story of Central America's vibrant ancestral heritage through the ceramics of its complex civilizations. The exhibition marked two museum firsts - sharing its remarkable ceramics and presenting the first bilingual Spanish exhibition.
  • Christopher Wilson. An American History Museum historian well versed in topics as varied as early 20th Century agriculture and 19th Century baseball, Christopher connects students to scholars and history-making participants through his National Youth Summits programs. Focused on middle and high school students, the webcast panels spark national conversation about past events that resonate still; the 2013 Dust Bowl summit shared a discussion by Ken Burns, Dust Bowl survivors and others with classrooms coast to coast.

American Express is one of the Campaign Leadership Donors through our support of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the preservation of the Star Spangled Banner (see my CSR Now! postings of January 21, 2014 and June 30, 2014).

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and let's start a conversation there.

Next month: The Job of the Nonprofit CEO


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