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Friday, October 14, 2016

Flash Forward Friday: Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian

Looking to the future comes as naturally to the Smithsonian as looking to the past. From scientists studying changes in our environment to preservationists making sure cultural heritage survives for the next generation, the future is as present in our daily lives as our history. This has been true from our earliest days, when Joseph Henry’s Meteorological Project was seeking to understand and predict our weather.

Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian, by Unknown, 1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 82-3349.
In 1927, the Smithsonian decided it was time to think seriously about our own future and convened a Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian. Setting out “to advise with reference to the future policy and field of service of the Smithsonian Institution,” Secretary Charles Walcott invited people from across the country – scientists, academics, politicians, and private citizens – to learn about the Smithsonian’s many activities and establish our first strategic plan since 1847.  In the middle of a capital campaign, the Smithsonian also hoped that attendees would contribute monetarily to the endeavors they were setting out on.

Astrophysics Exhibit, Conference on the Future of the SI, by Unknown, 1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 17886-D or MNH-17886D.
To this end, staff were asked to create exhibits featuring their current research and collections. They emphasized the ways in which Smithsonian research benefitted the nation and the economy. Highlighting how many Smithsonian projects grew into their own government bureaus, like Joseph Henry’s Meteorological Project which grew into the U.S. Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service. Exhibits represented all corners of the Smithsonian: from the Herbarium featuring plant specimens and botanical drawings, to Vertebrate Paleontology with fossils elephants to mammoths, and Astrophysics with the tools of their trade.

Vertebrate Paleontology & Geology Exhibit, Conference on Future of SI, by Unknown, Febuary 11, 1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 17883-A or MNH-17883A.
Sadly, two days before the conference Secretary Walcott passed away, never seeing his plan come to fruition.  Assistant Secretary Charles Greeley Abbot stepped in and hosted the conference with William H. Taft, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Smithsonian Chancellor, giving opening remarks. Taft asked attendees to “see the broad and comprehensive scope of the Institution, competing or interfering with nobody, cooperating with all, reaching the basic problems of mankind and of the time, with a view to furnishing the information through which alone they can be solved. They wish you to see what the future possibilities of the Institution are.”

Herbarium Exhibit, Conference on Future, by Unknown, 1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 17883-K or MNH-17883K.
Further Reading:
The Bigger Picture: A Twofer

Proceedings of Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution, Book 1, February 11, 1927

Fourth Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott, 1850-1927

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives

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