Oct
01

From the Secretary: Relevance and innovation draw the most visitors in a decade

When U.S. Secretary of Labor, the Honorable Hilda Solis, offered remarks at the September opening of “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964,” it was clear she was deeply and personally moved by the exhibition at the American History Museum. The exhibition tells the little-known story of the Emergency Farm Labor Program, which brought more than 2 million Mexican workers into the United States on short-term labor contracts. It will be on view at MAH through Jan. 3, 2010 and traveling thereafter through the auspices of the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service. Secretary Solis commended the Smithsonian for mounting and traveling “Bittersweet Harvest” and bringing visitors face to face with these Mexican workers’ hard lives.

Braceros worked in agriculture and maintained railroad tracks in more than 30 U.S. states. (Photo by Aaron Castañeda Gamez, 1944)

Braceros worked in agriculture and maintained railroad tracks in more than 30 U.S. states. (Photo by Aaron Castañeda Gamez, 1944)

The bracero program—bracero means laborer or farmhand–offered U.S. farmers a supply of labor and offered new social and economic opportunities for braceros, but it also brought suffering, hardship and heartbreaking exploitation.

In 1956, Leonard Nadel documented the braceros’ harsh living conditions in photographs that he hoped would expose employer contract violations and lead to improved conditions. As Secretary Solis made her remarks at the opening of the exhibition, she looked at some of Nadel’s photographs. Obviously moved, her eyes welled with tears and she said simply, “My father was a bracero.”

The power of our exhibitions—to educate and enlighten, to inform and inspire—is the primary reason millions of visitors from around the world visit our museums each year. In fact, the Smithsonian has had more than 30 million visitors this fiscal year–the largest number in the past decade and 6 million more than last year. The American History Museum recently welcomed its 4 millionth visitor since its reopening in November 2008.

This Siksika (Blackfoot) horse head covering, ca. 1845, is among the objects on display in "A Song for the Horse Nation," opening next month at the Heye Center.

This Siksika (Blackfoot) horse head covering, ca. 1845, is among the objects on display in "A Song for the Horse Nation," opening next month at the Heye Center.

This fall, our staff has mounted an incredible variety of new exhibitions—90 in all. Recent examples include the Portrait Gallery’s “Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924” and Natural History’s “Since Darwin: Evolution of Evolution.” This month, “Falnama: The Book of Omens” opens at the Sackler Gallery; in November, at the American Indian Museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York, “A Song for the Horse Nation” will tell the story of the horse’s influence on American Indian tribes. This exhibition will come to the National Mall in 2011, and then travel with SITES. “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas” also opens in November in Washington, D.C. Developed by NMAI with the Museum of African American History and Culture, this exhibition focuses on interactions between African American and Native American people, and also will travel around the country.

The Smithsonian is increasingly reaching out to younger audiences with innovative evening offerings, such as the “ASIA after DARK” events at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. More than 800 people attended September’s “Peacock Shock,” which offered contemporary music and live performances in the Freer Courtyard, along with food tastings and cocktails, Asian films and videos, gallery tours, hands-on art making and text-message scavenger hunts.

Anne Truitt in her studio in Washington, D.C. in 1995. (Photo by John Dolan. Artwork © Estate of Anne Truitt.)

Anne Truitt in her studio in Washington, D.C. in 1995. (Photo by John Dolan. Artwork © Estate of Anne Truitt.)

The Hirshhorn’s “After Hours” series—featuring cocktails, performances, gallery talks and music—was featured in the fall 2009 edition of “Fashion Washington.” Describing the evenings as “one of the city’s best-dressed fetes,” the author urged all to attend the next “After Hours” on Oct. 23. On Oct. 8 at the Hirshhorn, Tim Gunn, chief creative officer at fashion company Liz Claiborne and design mentor of the Lifetime network’s “Project Runway,” will moderate a discussion about the work of his former professor, artist Anne Truitt. The retrospective, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” opens that evening and will be on display through Jan. 10.

With innovation and engagement, scholarship and sensitivity, the Smithsonian is making our collections and research relevant to an ever-increasing and diverse audience. In a recent interview, author Malcolm Gladwell helped me better understand our appeal to so many different visitors. Relevance, he said, can be described as “a function of the number of different kinds of worlds that an idea participates in simultaneously.” I want to congratulate all our staff for their efforts that help millions participate in the rich world of the Smithsonian.


Posted: 1 October 2009
About the Author:

Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Since beginning his tenure in July 2008, Secretary Clough has overseen several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum. He has initiated long-range planning for the Institution that will define the Smithsonian’s focus for the future. More about Secretary Clough…