Environmental Button, National Museum of American History.

Smithsonian’s First Earth Day

How did the Smithsonian take part in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970? 

On the first-ever Earth Day on April 22, 1970, the nation’s capital was buzzing with activity. Groups of school children grabbed trash bags and met up in parks, 1,700 college students participated in a march to the Department of the Interior, and university professors lectured on topics related to environmental disasters. 

How did the Smithsonian participate in this first Earth Day? 

In April 1970, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History took the lead by talking to the press and hosting programming. Smithsonian Assistant Secretary for Science Sidney Galler spent four hours providing commentary on a local radio station and director of ecology Dale Jenkins was the Institution’s mouthpiece in speaking to national newspapers. Leading up to Earth Day and hosted throughout the year, the Museum organized a panel series on environmental problems, titled “Encounters.”

But the Smithsonian didn’t just lecture at their audiences, staff scientists also asked for visitor input. Curator of paleobiology Martin A. Buzas and research associate in the Office of Academic Programs Jon Seger organized seven afternoon collaborative “Think-in” sessions on ecological themes for audiences in the Museum’s Whale Hall. Porter M. Kier, who became the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History three years later, was one of the facilitators of a “Think-in” event.  

Portrait of Porter M. Kier. He is wearing a suit, tie, and thick-framed glasses.

Following the first year of programming, the Smithsonian’s participation in Earth Day activities continued to grow. In 1989, leading up to the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, the Institution hosted a conference for journalists and scientists to explore new strategies for reporting environmental stories. The Smithsonian Institution Archives has digitized and made available clips from Covering the Environment: Front Page or Yesterday's News?, a 30-minute video based on those discussions.  


Today, the Smithsonian hosts an Earth Optimism summit, aimed at framing the conservation narrative around solutions and problem-solving. Explore this week’s full calendar of events for Earth Day.  

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