Wall of orchids Smithsonian Gardens exhibit orchids: A MOMENT, 2017, Elizabeth Miller, Courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

Orchids and Oral History

Let’s learn about the history of Smithsonian Gardens’ annual orchid exhibit with a little help from former director Barbara Faust through her 2011 oral history interview. 

It’s National Orchid Day, folks. In 1974, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) began with a total of five plants. Today, SGOC has grown to over six thousand specimens, some of which are included in an annual exhibit that highlights the beauty and variety of this living collection.

To learn more about this annual orchid exhibit, we’re turning to the oral history collection here at the Smithsonian Archives to hear from someone who’s seen this collection, and this exhibit, grow throughout her forty-plus years at the Smithsonian, Barbara Faust.

Barbara Faust stands in front of a display of orchids.

Barbara Faust joined the greenhouse division in 1977 and served as the Smithsonian Gardens director from 2014 through 2019. It was under her leadership as associate director that Smithsonian Gardens gained accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Faust’s 2011 oral history interview in our collection traces her career at the Smithsonian, including her dedication to pursuing the AAM accreditation and her desire to highlight the collections in this unique unit. For Faust, the orchid exhibits highlight both the challenges and triumphs included in that journey for Smithsonian Gardens. In her interview, Faust shared her recollection of what it was like to get the annual orchid exhibit up and running:

When we first started out, we did everything ourselves: so, we had to build the props, we had to, you know, write the script, we had to do the signage. I mean everything. I mean ... there was a lot of room for improvement. But it was all about the orchids, and people loved it. And then as time went on, we got more and more support from the rest of the Smithsonian, the Office of Exhibits Central came in and helped us build props, plan it, basically project manage the exhibit. They also brought along, you know, a writer, editor, all of those additional resources which helped us improve our product. And one of the challenges we always had was finding a place to do the exhibit because we really didn’t own anywhere. We did it in the Arts and Industries building for quite a few years, also in the S. Dillon Ripley Center, we- one year we were down there. In recent years we’ve been at the National Museum of Natural History, and that’s been really wonderful being there because it’s such a good fit, having an orchid exhibit in the Natural History Building.

Faust shared how the ever-evolving nature of the orchid exhibit and collaboration across the Smithsonian has offered her a constant and exciting challenge—a challenge emblematic of her work at the Smithsonian.

I’ve always enjoyed the orchid exhibits. I mean they’ve been hard, they weren’t easy to execute. I mean they’ve gotten easier over the years because we’ve gotten better at it, but those have always been very interesting. Working with [the Smithsonian] Folklife [Festival] every year. It’s always something different, and the challenges that they present us on growing plants from different countries and regions of the U.S., that’s been really interesting. That’s just what’s been so wonderful about being part of the Smithsonian, is that there are so many interesting things to get involved in.

For more on the orchid exhibits, check out some of their like orchids: A MOMENT and Orchids of Latin America from 2013.

Orchids displayed in an array of wooden crates.

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