Secretary Robert McCormick Adams and John Gonzales, 1990, Image no. 2003-19497, Accession 98-015, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Secretary Adams: A Fascination with Fieldwork

Learn more about Secretary Robert Adams through his oral histories, which are newly available for research.

Secretary Adams Checks Underground Museum Construction

Robert McCormick Adams was the ninth Secretary of the Smithsonian, and an archeologist focusing on the environmental, urban, and techo-economic history of the Middle East. Over his long career he conducted pioneering field work, used new tools to study historical geography, and led the Smithsonian towards more diversity and inclusiveness. While his career resulted in academic honors and professional accolades, it also resulted in some great adventures in the field. In his oral histories, newly available for research, he describes a few of his adventures in his own words.

After a few years at the University of Chicago, a hands-on, can-do attitude, and an adventurous spirit got him involved with his first archaeological expedition as an undergraduate:

[Robert J.] Bob Braidwood — because that's who this was — was faced with the need to make a very quick choice as to someone else and decided to take Bob Adams because at least he could fix the expedition's cars, or so he has since told me on occasion. So suddenly, I found myself on the way out to Iraq in the fall of 1950, and still having been very candid with Bob and Linda [S.] Braidwood — they worked as a team — in saying that I wasn't at all sure I wanted to be a professional in any academic field, and, in fact, had a major hand in building the mud brick expedition house that we used that year, which was the first thing we had to do. It was a very remote site in Iraqi Kurdistan called Jarmo, and there were no facilities of any kind within many miles.

Robert McCormick Adams at STRI, by Unknown, 1990, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 96-20062.

Archeology, and especially fieldwork, captured Adams' attention. After earning a PhD and joining the faculty of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, he ventured out for fieldwork in Iraq one fall, only to run into more adventure than he had intended:

That year was interesting in another way, because it was the year of the Suez Crisis, and the pressures were building up on the Iraqi monarchy. We found ourselves in the middle of what was often a very tense situation in which American and English contractors were trying to keep the lid on a work force in ferment, and there were strikes in the cities. It was really a very hairy time.

Secretary Robert McCormick Adams and John Gonzales

Just a year later, while in the field for work sponsored by the government of Iraq, Adams found another adventure.

But anyhow, that year I then was able to operate with Iraq government vehicles and with no controls, really, all over the Diyala area and to get a sense of what one could do with the air photographs. In the meantime, the Iraq revolution was creeping nearer, and most of us knew it . . . I got out just before the revolution came on July 14th. I think I left Iraq, having been there for ten or eleven months, sometime in late June of 1958, that would have been.

Groundbreaking of the New Anacostia Museum

As Adams transitioned from researcher to administrator, he spent less time in the field. But even as Secretary of the Smithsonian, he jumped at the chance to get back into the field. When the Smithsonian signed an agreement with the government of Iraq, it was none other than Secretary Adams himself that answered the call.

They had serious problems with the question of the ecology of the marshlands and the canals and so on in the extreme south of Iraq. Contamination was a problem; the future was a problem, and so on and so on. And what was the transformation likely to come with them? They would be interested in talking to a specialist at the Smithsonian, if there existed one, and I said, ‘Well, of course, I’m the only one here.’ And very quickly I was in contact — and, in fact, we were rather friendly — with the present, at that time, the present Ambassador from Iraq [Nizar Hamdoon]. Very quickly, back came an approval: ‘we would love to have you come out and conduct you through the marshes’ and so on, which were chronic and deep and with important historical and ecological problems. And I said ‘Sure, I want to go out.’

Read and listen to Secretary Adams' oral history interviews to find these and other tales from his long and storied career in the field, and at the University of Chicago, and the Smithsonian.

Secretary Adams and his Wife

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