“I think we could be a place people feel comfortable to hear about things, to learn about things,” Skorton said during a visit to The Washington Post last week.
One priority for Skorton will be continuing the Smithsonian’s long-standing work on climate change. Smithsonian researchers have been doing work that “you might interpret as environmental research” for 140 years, including more recent statements and exhibitions on the so-called Anthropocene age, an epoch defined by human impact on the planet. Skorton doesn’t intend to change that focus, even after the election of a president who has suggested the climate change is a hoax or a Chinese invention intended to reduce American competitiveness.
“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, and that is follow where the data leads,” Skorton said, explaining that he hopes to convene more public conversations on the issue. “We’re here to serve the public, we’re mainly supported by public funds. Does that mean we want to present the public with every possible perspective on something whether or not we believe the preponderance of evidence supports that perspective? I think by continuing to have exhibitions, data, publications, all the ways that we disseminate information following the data, it may put us at opposition to people who feel differently.”
Skorton brought up the possibilities of using the Smithsonian as a staging ground for public dialogue repeatedly throughout his visit, citing TED and the Aspen Institute as examples for how to spread big ideas effectively. He was vaguer on the subject of what the Smithsonian might do to stage exhibits that run across multiple museums, using different frameworks or fields to explore different facets of a single story.
“There are complications, details,” Skorton suggested of that kind of collaboration. “Do you need to move something from the collection of one institution to the other? But I think all those things can be overcome if there’s goodwill to do it.”
He offered few details on how he might encourage visitors to explore museums that tell them stories that are different from –and more challenging than — the ones they intended to seek out. Skorton didn’t have demographics on hand for the visitorship for the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, for example, but I think that institution will play one role long-term if most of the visitors are black and another if it’s a place where all Americans, no matter their race, are willing to come to confront the nation’s difficult racial history.
“That self-selection [about which museums visitors choose to see] has been occurring for a long time, and not predominantly along political lines,” he said. “The American public will have its own way of deciding where it wants to go. … Getting the word out better about some of the places that do not attract huge visitorship could remedy that to some extent. A great example of that is the Anacostia Community Museum. I meet a lot of people in this city who never heard of [it] … There’s not a Metro stop right by it; it’s off the beaten track. I believe good scholarship is going into the exhibitions, and there’s a very interesting history of community outreach.”
Skorton also emphasized that he felt the Smithsonian had an obligation to “emphasize our connections with the District as well as serving the national audience,” given the size of the institution’s presence in the city. He has been meeting with a group of 13 District high school students to learn more about “what they want out of museums, what their views are on the use of technology to tell stories.”
And the Smithsonian is working abroad as well; the institution collaborated with the University of Pennsylvania and other institutions of higher learning to develop a pamphlet in Kurdish, Arabic and English that identified cultural sites that would be vulnerable during the attack on Mosul, Iraq.
“I don’t have the security clearance” to know how effective the publication was, Skorton acknowledged, “but they asked us to reprint it because the demand has been so high.”