Going Back to the Smithsonian’s Future

In 1927, the Smithsonian held a conference to plan for the Smithsonian’s future.

Today on The Bigger Picture, we are highlighting the anniversary of the 1927 Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian which brought together people from across the country – scientists, academics, politicians, and private citizens – to advise on the future role of the Smithsonian. For this, we bring you a piece from Smithsonian Archives Program Assistant Lisa Fthenakis, which appeared last year in the Smithsonian Collections Blog. Each new Secretary of the Smithsonian creates a strategic plan which outlines his vision for the Smithsonian. Just last month Secretary David Skorton released his strategic plan, for how the Smithsonian can increase its impact and reach more people with its work, continuing the vison of inclusion that Secretary Walcott had in 1927.

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 the past. This has been true from our earliest days, even Joseph Henry’s Meteorological Project was seeking to understand and predict our weather.

Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian

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. In the middle of a capital campaign, the Smithsonian also hoped that attendees would contribute monetarily to the endeavors they were setting out.

Astrophysics Exhibit, Conference on the Future of the SI

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

Herbarium Exhibit, Conference on Future


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, now 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 with alone they can be solved. They wish you to see what the future possibilities of the Institution are.”

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