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An Open Letter to the Smithsonian

A few days ago I renewed my membership in the Friends of the Smithsonian, much later than I have in past years. To be honest, I was seriously considering not continuing my support of your organization.

I know my annual contribution is relatively small compared to the big bucks you get from many individuals and corporations, so you probably don’t care why I hesitated, waited, and reconsidered.  But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Largely it boils down to the fact that I don’t think you are doing your job, although it’s likely that you and I see the purpose of the Smithsonian, and all museums/zoos/aquariums, differently.

Your primary job is not research or archiving stuff, both of which by all accounts you do very well, but to educate. First and foremost museums and those other organizations should be do everything they can to help their visitors learn about and understand their speciality.

However, as with schools, your traditional methods of conveying information just aren’t effective anymore and you need to change.

Very few exhibits in the Smithsonian interact with visitors and encourage them to participate in the experience. Almost all consist of an artifact, nicely displayed with a plaque or movie nearby explaining what the item is. The museum equivalent of the lecture – certainly appropriate for some circumstances but a very ineffective way to get your students involved in developing their own learning.

It’s not like there aren’t some good models for you to study and borrow their ideas. A few blocks away in DC are the Newseum and Spy Museum, both very interactive and both of which do a much better job of teaching about American history and society than our “National” museums.

And when it comes to science and technology, you do a completely lousy job.

Those two Air and Space Museums (very few out-of-town visitors even know about the second one, much less can get there), once you get past the novelty of planes hanging from the ceiling, are pretty boring, an oversized version of lecturing. Again, there are plenty of examples of great interactive, participatory science museums around the world (start with the Exploratorium in San Francisco) but sadly none are in DC.

Then there are the activities and presentations you offer to those of us who are members of the museum. They have also been stagnating in recent years. Too many of the same travelog slide shows and activities with military themes,* not enough presentations on interesting topics by engaging people.

I understand that most of your funding depends on a small bunch of hyper-sensitive congress critters, the loudest among them always on the lookout for another cultural war to fight. But grow a spine and offer some events that explore some of the more challenging parts of the American experience.

Anyway, you have my money for the coming year and I know you’ll be writing frequently to ask for more. You won’t get it and it’s very possible that next year at this time I may decide to take my contributions elsewhere.

I hope you’ll care enough about your education mission to some big changes to the way you interact with those of us who come to visit (you could start with your web site), but frankly, I’m not optimistic.

*Yeah, I know it’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. That doesn’t mean everything you do for the next four years needs to be centered around that topic.


  1. Mark

    Not sure it is fair to say that their principal mission is “to educate”.

    Got me wondering…
    from: http://www.si.edu/Content/Pdf/About/SI_Strategic_Plan_2010-2015.pdf

    The increase and diffusion of knowledge
    Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world

  2. Tim

    Those mission and vision statements go 2/3 of the way to “educate”. They need to add the goal of helping visitors understand that heritage and new knowledge in the context of the modern world. Unfortunately, I still think the Smithsonian allocates too many of it’s resources to the “preserving” part and does a bad job when it comes to “sharing”.

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