When thinking back on I. Michael’s Heyman’s tenure as the eleventh Smithsonian Secretary from 1994 to 1999, I have to say that this was a Secretary who liked a great party! Mr. Heyman, who died just a few weeks ago on November 19th, at the age of 81, became Secretary at a difficult time for the Institution. Budgets were tight, staff levels were declining, and the Institution was embroiled in the controversy over how to display the World War II bomber, the Enola Gay. Not much thought had been given to the Institution’s 150th anniversary to be celebrated on August 10, 1996. Heyman immediately galvanized staff energies with a multi-pronged approach to the commemoration: he launched a development campaign, organized the America’s Smithsonian exhibit to share the Institution’s treasures at venues across the nation, developed a scholarly program to send Smithsonian researchers to American communities to share their knowledge, and initiated a community program that focused on the staff themselves.
While the public programs and exhibits were quite visible, the staff programs were designed to celebrate the contributions of all Smithsonian staff and rekindle morale across the Institution. An Unsung Heroes program was created to provide peer recognition of staff who worked quietly, but effectively every day to advance the Institution’s mission. Artists at Work -- a staff art show -- and a staff photography show showcased the many talents of the Institution’s staff. Smithsonian Live, the behind-the-scenes tours of Smithsonian exhibits and craftsmen and women at work, began in 1996 as well. A staff giveaway was also held, in which staff with winning tickets won prizes ranging from books to expert lessons in conservation to special tours.
The Festival of American Folklife also highlighted Smithsonian staff that year, with its occupational group being Smithsonian workers. Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations staff demonstrated how to clean large objects with forklifts, the K-9 squads showcased their special training and work, and craftsmen from the National Zoo explained the intricacies of repairing animal enclosures while working with zoo residents at close range. Curators showed off their collections of art, culture, history, and natural history. Conservators taught the public how to care for their own books, photographs, and textiles, and taxidermists demonstrated their craft. Exhibits fabricators explained to Secretary Heyman that in the Smithsonian’s historic buildings “there were no straight lines or square corners,” requiring an ability to work around constraints to produce professional displays.
The Smithsonian Workers program was repeated on the weekend of August 10-11, 1996, as part of the Smithsonian 150th Birthday Party on the National Mall -- probably the biggest party the Institution has ever thrown. Visitors from all over the country flocked to the party to talk with Smithsonian staff from across the Institution about the work that goes on every day beyond the public’s view.
Highlights of the day included the installation of a bell in the Castle’s tower -- which was a part of the Castle’s original plan, but never installed. And sunset brought a memorable concert headlined by Aretha Franklin that culminated in a spectacular fireworks display framing the Castle. The Sesquicentennial celebration galvanized Smithsonian staff, from Panama to Arizona to Massachusetts to Washington, DC, moving the Institution forward into its fourth half-century. It was a memorable event created by a leader who understood the meaning of community and truly loved a great party.