In light of the recent launch of the Smithsonian's new nationwide advertising campaign, Seriously Amazing, it is interesting to contextualize the campaign within the history of Smithsonian branding as a whole. Prior to Seriously Amazing, which has been in development for the past two years, the Smithsonian did not have an official branding outlet to represent itself to the nation and the world. There have, however, been events and initiatives which—while not labeled in particular as marketing strategies—have influenced public perception of the Smithsonian Institution.
One such event, the James Smithson Bicentennial Celebration "gave the Institution an opportunity at a natural turning point in its history to take stock of itself and advertise itself to the world" (Oesher, Paul. The Smithsonian Institution. Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1979). Held in 1965, the celebration marked 200 years since the birth of founder James Smithson. The three-day celebration included processions, addresses, banquets, concerts, lectures and more, all under the direction of the newly-appointed Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley. To Ripley, the Bicentennial Celebration was a chance for the Smithsonian to "advertise itself to the world." The processions of academics in their robes and addresses by the likes of Robert Oppenheimer and Claude Lévi-Strauss, to name a few, enforced the view that the Smithsonian was indeed a place of research and scholarship, while celebrations on the National Mall engendered the "nation’s backyard" feel that continues to this day.
Along with the preparations for the Bicentennial Celebration came redesigns of the Smithsonian seal and flag. The previous seal, done by artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was adopted in 1894 and used until Ripley called for a redesign to follow the Bicentennial festivities. The new logo featured—in heraldry terms— a "sun in splendor" image taken from the Smithson coat of arms. Compared to the 1894 seal, the sun logo is simpler, and instead of using ancient torches to symbolize truth and knowledge, the sun denotes a source of light which will long outlast any man-made source. The use of the sun harkened back to the Smithsonian's roots, but at the same time suggested that the Institution's influence would reach far into the future.
The first Smithsonian flag, adopted in 1955, featured the same torch imagery as the 1894 seal, accompanied simply by the words "SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION." This flag was flown only twice a year beginning in 1957—on August 10th, to mark the anniversary of the Smithsonian's chartering, and on July 4th for Independence Day. Along with the seal, the flag was also redesigned in 1965. Like the new logo, the new flag incorporated imagery from Smithson's coat of arms: a lion in the upper left corner holding the "sun in splendor." In the center of the flag, a globe image—adapted from the 1894 Saint-Gaudens seal—is surrounded by another sunburst. Coordinating banners for each Smithsonian bureau were also designed. Each banner featured the same globe-and-sun symbol, with the image of the lion replaced by a symbol specific to each bureau. Like the new seal, the flags showed the connection to the Institution's past while incorporating images that showed the potential for progress—for example, the National Air and Space Museum chose a plane in flight.
From a marketing standpoint, the Smithson Bicentennial Celebration successfully attracted attention to the Smithsonian. However, that attention needed to be guided so that the public got the "right idea" of the Smithsonian image. The academic processions with coat-of-arms inspired flags provided a foil for performances on the Mall and redesigned logos. The Institution appeared to be in touch with its tradition of garnering scholarship as laid out by the will of its founder, while creating an accessible, welcoming environment that promised to continue thriving for years to come.
- You Spin Me Right Round, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Happy Flag Day!, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7000 - James Smithson Collection, 1764-1983, Smithsonian Institution Archives