In its 175-year history, the Smithsonian Institution has had just 14 secretaries. Who were these men (yes, all were men) and how did they interpret founder James Smithson’s mandate for the increase and diffusion of knowledge? What challenges have they had to overcome or accept?
Historian Pamela Henson of Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, who specializes in the Smithsonian’s institutional history, focuses on five leaders who have left the largest imprints.
In 1846, Joseph Henry, a Princeton physics professor, was elected the institution’s first secretary. He held the post for 32 years—the longest of any Smithsonian leader. Notable achievements of Spencer Baird (1878–1887) include the creation of the U.S. National Museum, Astrophysical Observatory, and the National Zoo. Alexander Wetmore (1945–1954) guided the institution through World War II and brought in the National Air and Space Museum and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. S. Dillon Ripley (1964–1984) added new museums, new research institutes, and cultural heritage centers, some far from Washington, D.C., and changed the composition of the staff to include women and minorities in positions of authority. (Ripley can also be thanked for the creation of the Smithsonian Associates.)
Henson concludes with a look at Lonnie G. Bunch III, the current—and first African American—secretary, and how he is shaping the future of the institution, which holds two new museums: the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.
Join Henson as she traces the stories of these leaders, who guided the Smithsonian’s growth from its beginnings in the Castle to its present international scope encompassing 21 museums with holdings of 155 million objects, a world-class zoo, 8 research institutes, 3 cultural centers, and an ever-expanding educational mission.
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