Smithsonian Institution: A World Class Museum Operator

November 4th, 2011   •   no comments   

Aerial view of the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC (source: Tripadvisor)

As part of the Business Of Heritage conference, I had the pleasure of learning about how the Smithsonian Institution built its world class reputation as a leading museum brand.  Delivering the talk was Ms Elizabeth Duggal, Director of International Museum Professional Education Programme of Smithsonian Institution and Co-Chair of ICOM United States. 
Here are some of the key points of the talk which I thought would be useful to share.
Excellence in Museums
According to the Smithsonian Institution (SI), excellence isn’t just measured by size but indicators like context, mission, history and goals.  It is about how the museum reaches out to its community and stakeholders in a dynamic and evolving fashion, and about being impactful and relevant.
Examples of excellent museums include the Exploratorium, Te Papa, Kelvingrove, Tenement, Louvre and Guggenheim.  Each had a unique focus and mission which differentiated them from each other.
Changing Role of Museums
The role of museums are changing.  This is captured in ICOM’s definition of museums, with a shift from preserving, studying and enhancing specimens (1956) to service, communication, education and enjoyment (2007).  In the classical model, museums were internally and curatorially focused.  However, in the emerging model, museums are externally focused while actively enlisting visitors as participants.
Museums in the US
There are more than 3,000 museums in the US reflecting the diversity of its culture and heritage.  Unlike Singapore, there isn’t a Ministry of Tourism or Culture, and oversight comes mainly from the State and local agencies.  There is only one National Museum operator in the US, which is the Smithsonian Institution.  Most other museums are privately or philanthropically funded.
Facts about Smithsonian
The Smithsonian Institution was founded by Englishman James Smithson in 1826, who bequeathed US$500,000 in 1846 to the US.  His desire was that the museum should be “established for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” – a mission which has not changed more than 180 years later.
SI is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, 9 research centres, 20 libraries and the National Zoo.  The complexes are situated in Washington DC next to the capital building, and is structured as a trust instrumentality of the US government. 
The group is governed by a powerful Board of Regents, whose members include the Chief Justice, Vice President, 6 senators/house of representatives, and 9 prominent US citizens (philanthropists, university professors, academics). Its Chief Executive is called the Secretary.
Annually, SI receives about US$1.1 billion in funding, out of which about 66% (2/3) comes from the Federal budget.  It employs more than 6,000 employees and works with another 6,000 volunteers who assist in all its museums.
SI has the world’s largest collection of 137 million objects, and draws some 30 million visitors through its doors each year, with another 188 million visitors online.  It has a national affiliates programme working with over 100 centres.
Smithsonian Institution’s Strategic Plan (2010-2015)
The museum group has the following strategic goals:
          Inspire generations through knowledge and discovery
          Broaden access
          Revitalise education
          Cross boundaries
          Strengthen collections
          Enable the mission through organisational excellence
          Measure outcomes
          Focus on the grand challenges
Through this, it aims to boost art, science and cultural literacy.
Research and Partnership
SI is a powerhouse in research, with its aim to increase global knowledge.  It has a human origins programme as part of the natural history museum where more than 100 researchers contribute towards an exhibit.  The museum group also adopts the idea of a “museum beyond borders” by forging international collaborations.  It spearheads research projects in more than 90 countries and partners institutions around the world. 
Examples include a conference in Panama which it organises hosting some 900 scientists each year, a collaboration with Harvard University in astrophysics, and an ambitious global project to document biodiversity called the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL).  
Catering from the elite to the masses, SI has recently partnered with primetime comedian Stephen Colbert on a tie-up featuring the comedian’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.  This collaboration was well received and resulted in spikes of 33% to 57% in monthly visitorship.  The group is also well known for its collaborations with Hollywood for the Night At the Museums 2
To increase access, SI has also developed mobile apps that solicit stories from beyond Washington DC (Stories from Main Street Mobile App).
Moving from curator-defined to community driven exhibits, SI’s National Museum of the American Indian worked closely with the native American community.  Its restaurants and gift shops are also customised to their needs and themes.  The museum has also sought to break down the boundaries between visitors and objects.
SI has the world’s largest collection of 137 million objects out of which 6.4 million are accessible online.  Only 2% of its collection is currently on display.  More than 90% of the items are biological specimens.
To embrace living global heritage, the group organises the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival (which attracts about one million visitors a year) where living cultural traditions and intangible heritage are featured.  About 23,000 musicians, artists, performers and craftspeople participate in this global carnival.
SI has embraced digital technology with two examples:
1) Echoes of the Past at the Freer Sackler Gallery, where “ancient Buddha art meets digital technology”
2) Leafsnap mobile app (working in partnership with Columbia University and Google), where a software is used to take a picture of a leaf and to identify its species.  
About 66% of the group’s total budget of US$1.1 billion comes from the State, with philanthropic funds contributing about 15% and commercial income (SI Enterprises) contributing 2%, amongst others.  It is predicted that this will rise to about US$1.5 to 1.6 billion in the future, and be increased primarily through the doubling of private grants and contributions.
Funding comes through diverse sources, and some of these channels are also used for access.  They include the Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Channel on TV, Smithsonian Travel, restaurant and so on.
Note that there are no admission charges to all its museums, and fees only apply to certain specific activities like the iMAX movie theatre. 
The Smithsonian is accountable to a wide array of stakeholders internal to international.  They include Congress, the Regents, Staff, Voters, Teachers, Schools, Families with kids, Researchers, Museums and so on.
Like other cultural institutions, the group has also fallen prey to occasional controversies.  An example was an exhibition on the Enola Gay (the World War II Bomber which devastated Hiroshima), and the Shipwreck exhibit of the Tang treasures which SI partnered Singapore with.
Vision Statement for 2015
Finally, Smithsonian has defined its lofty vision for 2015 as follows:
“We envision the Smithsonian Institution of 2015 as a world leader, an institution that uses its resources to influence the great debates of the day and engages millions more people than it does today.  In short, the 21st Century Smithsonian will be an institution that fulfils its vast potential to serve the nation and the world”.

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