Arts Desk

Lessons for the Next Secretary of the Smithsonian

This week, the Smithsonian Board of Regents elected Cornell University President, licensed cardiologist, and jazz flautist Dr. David Skorton to be the institution’s next secretary. Speaking to press, Skorton was coy about his plans, though he’s surely aware of the progress he’ll need to continue—the strong fundraising and attendance of recent years and ongoing digitization of the Smithsonian’s collections—as well as the institution’s challenges: some dilapidated buildings, a Hirshhorn in need of a defined direction, and the shadow of his predecessor’s capitulation to conservative critics over a controversial artwork. But Skorton will surely take some notes from the successes and failures of his predecessors. Hint: Baby animals are great; unauthorized expenses, less so.

fireinmybellyG. Wayne Clough

2008–2014

Best: The creation of a new strategic plan that addresses the Smithsonian’s role as both a collection of museums and a heavily endowed collection of research centers, reminding Americans that it’s more than just the place where the ruby slippers and the Hope Diamond reside.

Worst: Clough’s decision to pull David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire In My Belly,” a video artwork that showed a Christ figure with ants crawling across his abdomen, from the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition may have appeased angry Catholic groups and Congress, but it was still censorship.

Cristián Samper (interim) 

2007–2008

Best: The former director of the National Museum of Natural History provided stability after Lawrence Small resigned, and he restored scholarship as the institution’s highest priority.

Tai Shan Panda Cub First Time OutsideLawrence M. Small

2000–2007

Best: Pandas! Following the death of original panda Hsing Hsing in 1999, Small secured a new arrangement with China that brought Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to the National Zoo in December 2000. The multimillion dollar deal paid off: Tai Shan, the zoo’s first surviving panda cub, was born in 2005.

Worst: After Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan reviewed Small’s expenses in 2007 and found $90,000 that wasn’t authorized, the U.S. Senate froze a $17 million appropriations increase for the Smithsonian. Small later resigned.

enola gayI. Michael Heyman

1994–1999

Best: Traveling exhibitions, including the 1996 exhibition in honor of the institution’s 150th anniversary. By bringing a few of the Smithsonian’s resources to cities around the nation, he both shared the collection and perhaps kept a few tourists off the Metro, for which D.C. residents should thank him.

Worst: The Enola Gay saga. Curators from the National Air and Space Museum hoped to display the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, to mark the 50th anniversary
of World War II ending, but Heyman canceled the original exhibit after complaints from veterans’ groups.

postal museumRobert McCormick Adams 

1984–1994

Best: Expansion. Adams led efforts to create the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall and in 1994, opened the museum’s New York outpost, the George Gustav Heye Center. He also oversaw the creation of a philatelist’s heaven, the National Postal Museum, by Union Station.

Worst: The 1994 installation of “Science in American Life” at the National Museum of American History angered physicists, who argued that their work wasn’t as accurately represented as chemists’ (the exhibition was underwritten by the American Chemical Society.) Adams eventually gave in to the demands of the furious scientists.

anacostia community museumS. Dillon Ripley

1964–1984

Best: The development of what’s now known as the Anacostia Community Museum. Ripley also built the Smithsonian’s brand by overseeing the creation of the Smithsonian Associates and Smithsonian magazine.

Worst: Some criticized the Institution’s rapid expansion under Ripley’s leadership, but after transforming the Smithsonian into a global research institution, Ripley’s term lacked major snafus. He was called the Monarch of the Mall for a reason.

Photos courtesy the Smithsonian

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