Television and the Smithsonian: Worldly Success

David McCullough at Orozco Murals

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette's newly published book, "Science on American Television: A History," examines the popularization of science on television from the 1940s to the turn of the twenty-first century.

During the 1950s and 1960s (as I described in a previous post), places like the Smithsonian tended to keep television at arm's length. By 1976, however, television dominated the cultural scene. Even Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley had to admit that "if the masses won't come to museums," then museums must use the medium to reach the masses. That goal turned out to be more easily proposed than accomplished. Scientific and cultural institutions were forced to choose between trying to achieve maximum audiences through commercial broadcast or settling for public television's smaller circle of friends.

The noted Hollywood producer David L. Wolper made three highly-rated network specials with the Smithsonian during the 1970s, but Wolper's melodramatic style left many curators dismayed and disappointed. Public television offered a more dignified venue and The Ascent of Man (first shown in the United States in 1974), NOVA (which premiered in 1974), and Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980) had shown that millions of people would turn to PBS to watch well-produced programs about science. When Smithsonian World premiered on PBS in 1984, it followed a proven formula. Rather than focusing exclusively on science, the series intertwined segments on socially relevant research and environmental conservation with discussion of the arts and humanities.

The first host of the series was neither a scientist nor a museum curator. At the time, David McCullough was best known for his popular histories (e.g., The Path Between the Seas). A single clip from Smithsonian World, where McCullough encounters an importunate camel, illustrates well why he soon became a television star. The telegenic, honey-voiced McCullough was a television "natural," at ease in front of the camera, with an engaging public persona.

The first season's programs emphasized that the institution's work stretched far beyond the National Mall. In "Desk in the Jungle," McCullough and Ripley discuss the misperception that scientists were "deskbound scholars locked away in small offices." Smithsonian field researchers were, in fact, advancing human understanding in jungles and on mountaintops--documenting entomological diversity, identifying new astronomical bodies, studying the geology of volcanoes, uncovering the ruins of ancient civilizations, and recording folk music and culture. "The Last Flower" episode described Smithsonian research to preserve endangered species around the world, such as botanical specimens that might someday yield new life-saving drugs.

Smithsonian World also gave special attention to female scientists, something unusual during an era when every other television science series was still hosted or narrated by a male. Whether through Watch Mr. Wizard’s avuncular Don Herbert or NOVA’s choice of on-camera experts, 1980s television was still unconsciously reinforcing gender-based cultural assumptions about who could (and should) become a scientist. When McCullough interviewed physical anthropologist Katharine Milton, the young, self-confident researcher (who was studying howler monkeys at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Panama's Barro Colorado Island) provided a new role model to television viewers and the narration underlined the long strenuous days Milton spent in dense tropical forests. In another program, McCullough talked with biologist Devra Kleiman about the National Zoological Park's project to conserve golden lion tamarins. Kleiman's intensity and intelligence shone on the screen as she described their research to understand tamarin behavior and diet.

Over six seasons, with occasionally dazzling film of research around the world, Smithsonian World attracted a loyal group of public television viewers and praise from critics. The series' most important contributions, however, may have been to open windows on aspects of science otherwise hidden from view, such as the intellectual passion that fuels long hours in the laboratory or months spent in the field. And by turning its spotlight on women scientists, Smithsonian World also helped to reinforce a timely message about who can speak for science and thereby to encourage all its young viewers, female and male alike, to dream of perhaps someday becoming a scientist.

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