If you’re a regular here at The Bigger Picture, you’ll know that we are celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Smithsonian all year long. Today, we’re looking back to one of the ways the Smithsonian Institution Archives celebrated the Institution’s 150th anniversary in 1996—by collecting stories from staff in the Smithsonian Memories Tent at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall.
What can researchers find in these oral history interviews?
Record Unit 9594 is a collection of interviews from the Institution’s celebration of its sesquicentennial that capture the history and memories of Smithsonian staff, volunteers, and visitors. In a tent at the 1996 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, staff and volunteers conducted short-form oral history interviews. In 20-to-30 minute interviews, volunteers asked interviewees a set of standard questions about their jobs, career paths, and memories of the Smithsonian. These interviews also served as a space for people to share stories they wanted on the historical record—moments they thought were critical to help tell the history of their experience, but also the history of the Institution.
Who was interviewed?
In both individual and group interviews, 173 people from across the Smithsonian shared their perspectives and recollections in short-form oral history interviews. This collection is a part of the larger Smithsonian Oral History Program, which began in 1973 primarily collecting interviews with the Institution's leaders, mostly North American, white men. In 1996, 23 years later, the collection included more diverse voices from women, people of color, and Smithsonian community members from the National Museum of American History Skull Crew to Leonard Hirsch, the founder of the Federal GLOBE. This collection added to the growing diversity in the oral history collection here at the Archives.
Why does it matter?
In an anniversary year, it is essential for an institution to listen to the voices of the people who make up the organization. This collection invited the Smithsonian community to share their memories but also their struggles and hopes for the Institution. These interviews capture the history of the Smithsonian and ask those listening to the interviews to think critically about the role of the the Smithsonian and its employees as we work towards the increase and diffusion of knowledge.
- Smithsonian Memories Project, Festival of American Folklife Oral History Interviews, 1996, Record Unit 9594, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Reflections on a Reference Request” by Hannah Byrne, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives