Ninth Secretary, Robert McCormick Adams

Remembering Robert McCormick Adams, Secretary 1984-1994

Dr. Robert McCormick Adams (1926-2018) served as the ninth Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1984 to 1994. An archeologist, he brought an understanding of human societies to his role as leader of the Smithsonian, instituting new educational and diversity programs. 

Ninth Secretary, Robert McCormick Adams

Robert McCormick Adams (1926-2018) served as the ninth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1984 to 1994. He succeeded S. Dillon Ripley who had overseen a period of remarkable expansion from 1964 to 1984.  Dr. Adams consolidated that growth, focused on the Institution’s academic core, and guided the Institution towards more diversity and inclusiveness by ensuring the repatriation of Native American remains, bringing the National Museum of the American Indian under the Smithsonian, creating the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (a museum-based daycare for staff children), strengthening all educational programs, and creating a Cultural Education Committee.  The CEC focused on educational programs, diversity at all levels of the Institution, and sensitivity to cultural pluralism in exhibit programs and public outreach.

Secretary Adams at Signing Ceremony NMAI

Other accomplishments included overseeing construction of the Quadrangle, Mathias Center at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Tupper Center at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, as well as creating the National Postal Museum.  Adams pushed the Institution to move into newer research fields, such as molecular biology by reorganizing research units, and he participated actively in the intellectual life of the Institution. He also experimented with new ways to reach the public – encouraging the use of information technology and using new approaches to exhibitions.  He created an Experimental Gallery that used new exhibit techniques and addressed nontraditional topics, such as homelessness. 

Adams had received the Ph.B., A.M., and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He joined that University’s faculty in 1955, shortly before completing his dissertation.  An archeologist intrigued by the environmental, urban, and techo-economic history of the Middle East, he made significant intellectual and methodological contributions to the field. His pioneering field work on settlement patterns in the Middle East asked new questions about the dynamics between natural environments and human societies, with each affecting the other. Using new techniques in aerial photography to study historical geography, Adams reshaped views of the interactive relationships between our physical and social worlds.  Adams became director of the University’s Oriental Institute in 1962-1968 and 1981-1983, Dean 1970-1974, 1979-1980 and Provost from 1982 to 1984. 

Secretary Adams and his Wife

After being named Smithsonian Secretary Emeritus in 1994, Adams joined the faculty at the University of California at San Diego to continue his research into Middle Eastern settlement pattens using new data from satellite imagery. Robert McCormick Adams, died Saturday, January 27, in Chula Vista, California at the age of 91.

Related Resources

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.