The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution counts among his regular advisers members of Congress, the vice president and the chief justice of the United States — and now, a group of teenagers.
A year after assuming the job in 2015, Secretary David J. Skorton decided he needed a fresh perspective, so he convened an additional advising body: a “Youth Advisory Council” of 13 local high schoolers.
Two years later, the council is going strong: It has expanded to 20 teenagers from around the country and is directly influencing how the Smithsonian Institution approaches the next several decades, Skorton said.
The teens “bring that local scene, they bring a different demographic and they bring a sense of enthusiasm for wanting to change things in a way that would help us better connect with people,” Skorton said Wednesday. “It’s a special chance to get feedback from a particular segment of the public that is our future.”
The council meets with Skorton four to six times each year in different Smithsonian buildings; the nonlocal members tune in via video. Teens obtain positions on the council through an application process that asks them to write a short essay and answer a few questions. Last year, 35 completed applications and 11 were chosen by Smithsonian staff.
During his roughly hour-long sessions with the high schoolers, Skorton poses questions about specific exhibits and broader museum strategy: how to incorporate new technologies, how to use social media, how not to use social media.
As the teens talk, Skorton takes detailed notes. Later, he reviews, “tweaks” and files away a precis of the discussion typed up by an assistant.
“He’s really nice, he’s very funny and he doesn’t make us feel awkward or anything,” said Richard Montgomery High School senior Keira DiGaetano, 17, who sits on the council. “I went into it like, ‘How much do they really want our input?’ [but] I feel that they really do care.”
It’s “too soon” for the teens to have directly affected any exhibits, Skorton explained — exhibits take about three years to plan, and the council’s only been around for two. But they have weighed in on several strategic issues, sometimes in ways that have surprised the secretary.
The question Skorton asked at the first meeting of the council in 2016 was whether the students could envision an entirely digital Smithsonian — museums whose physical artifacts had been replaced by digital projections.
Skorton told the group that digitization would save “tens of millions of dollars” the Smithsonian now spends on protecting, conserving and maintaining its objects. Known as “the nation’s attic” — a nickname Skorton said drives him “crazy” because of its less-than-positive connotations — the Smithsonian boasts roughly 155 million items across its 19 museums, nine research centers and one zoo. The institution operates with a $1.3 billion annual budget; admission to Smithsonian museums is and has long been free.
Skorton expected the high schoolers to be gung-ho about his suggestion. He was “thunderstruck” by their answer.
“They were very much aghast at the prospect of not having collections,” Skorton said. “They were gentle with me, and kind and polite, and they said in the nicest possible way there’s a different way of using technology — and that is, show us the authentic object and use technology to help us put in context.”
In other words, surround the artifacts with new and interactive digital displays that help explain them — but never, ever get rid of the objects themselves. The Smithsonian was already pursuing this strategy to some extent, Skorton said, but the teens’ advice reinforced and reaffirmed his belief in the tactic.
DiGaetano said nearly everyone on the council thinks digitization is a “bad move.” Sixteen-year-old Jillian Perry, who is heading into her senior year at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, said the group is in universal agreement about just one other topic: town halls.
Everyone, Perry said, thinks the Smithsonian needs to hold more town halls, open to more people, focusing on a wider range of topics. At a time when public trust in institutions like the media and the presidency is falling, the teens think museums need to step up to foster conversations that inform and challenge the public.
The Smithsonian recently launched an initiative that aims to do exactly that, though it wasn’t the teens’ idea. In June 2017, the museum debuted a new series, “Smithsonian Second Opinion,” in which Skorton hosts four expert panel discussions on different topics every year. Video and a transcript of every conversation is posted to a new website, which the teens have critiqued.
“They had us check that out and we had a lot of feedback based on what was helpful to include in addition to the video and what is not helpful to include,” DiGaetano said.
Skorton said there’s only one area in which he’s found the teens less than helpful so far: social media. It isn’t that the students’ advice was bad. He just could not understand it.
Still struggling to master his nearly year-old Twitter account, Skorton said the council’s discussion of Twitch — a popular live-streaming platform — was too much for him. (Twitch is owned by Amazon.com, whose CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
“Not from their words, but from their eyes and the expressions on their faces, I know what they were thinking and didn’t have the gall to say to me was, ‘Can we talk to somebody who knows something about social media, maybe a younger person?’” Skorton said.
He said he plans to connect the high schoolers with his social media team next year.
Others in the District may be starting to take notice of Skorton’s newest and youngest advisers. On July 10, Skorton met with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to discuss the Smithsonian’s proposal to tighten and heighten security at the National Zoo. After Skorton mentioned the council, Norton suggested forming a similar working group of locals of different ages to ponder zoo security, according to a press release from Norton’s office.
Skorton said on Wednesday he would recommend that everybody consult teenagers.
“These students are fantastic,” he said. “I learned a lot from them.”
Applications for the 2018-2019 iteration of the council are available online. The museum began accepting applications on July 16 and will cease doing so on Sept. 14; once selected, students can remain on the council until they graduate from high school. Five slots remain open after five panelists graduated this year.