Last days at Smithsonian

My last day at Smithsonian. I went to HST first for a couple of appointments and then road my bike over to Smithsonian. I took the long way, i.e. went around Hains Point. It is a near perfect place to ride a bike, with a smooth road surface and a flat terrain.

I used to run down there, especially when I was studying Norwegian, since I lived nearby. I used to memorize lines and then repeat them, over and over, out loud, as I ran along. I don’t doubt people thought I was nuts. But language learning is a physical process. It is not enough for your brain to know it; your mouth has to be able to make the sounds w/o too much trouble and there is no substitute for repeating. It is like knowing how to ride a bike and really being able to ride a bike.

When I passed my language test and did my run w/o the need to talk to myself in Norwegian. I felt strangely empty, lonely, as I trudged along in silence.

A convenient way of going from Hains Point to Smithsonian is across the bridge to L’Enfant Plaza. My river picture shows new developments along the river. They are building a wharf complex of restaurants and shops.

L’Enfant Plaza was built in the 1960s as part of urban renewal and is evidence that bad architecture was the worldwide norm during the 1950s and 1960s and not only in benighted places in Eastern Europe. We forgot how to build pleasant buildings during that period.

My last picture is unrelated to the others. It shows the farmer’s market near Mariza’s house in Baltimore. It is a nice touch. Her neighborhood still has some crime, but there are lots of good developments too.

Washington bike commute 8

Post 8 – This is my current place of work at Smithsonian. That little building is the Ripley Center, portal to a vast subterranean complex that houses my office, among other things. Were I to borrow up, like in the Shawshank Redemption, I would come up in the garden. Across the street are pictured the Capitol Mall and Earth Day Park.

Recent times

I have not been that busy but I have been putting more onto Facebook. Facebook is much more ephemeral. I generally link to articles I find interesting and make a few comments. I don’t tell much of my experience and I need to get back to that.

Summing up the last couple of months, life has been strange. I feel in between. Smithsonian is a great place to be. I am getting a really good education. State Department is sometimes good about these developmental jobs. I got a lot out of my year at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. It changed my outlook and made me a better diplomat. I think that paid off the State Department over the next ten years. I have no doubt that all the things I am learning at Smithsonian would make me a better diplomat too, but I am at the end of my career now. I will get the benefit, but State will never get the pack back. I think from the strictly practical point of view, they should not have made the investment in me. But …

I love Washington and the part I love the most is the area around the Mall, i.e. Smithsonian. It is a great gift that State is giving me.

My pictures are some of the leftovers.  The top are the elm trees on the Mall from last fall.  Next is the Art Museum.  Museums should be done slowly.  Being on the Mall allows me that.  I can go in, spend time in one place and then go.  Below that is the National Arboretum with the Capitol in the background.  It is a great place to walk at lunchtime.  Bottom is Jack Rose Dining Saloon.  They have hundreds of whiskeys.  I attended a Smithsonian program on whiskey.  We go to taste a variety of types and pretend to be learning.

Science beats superstition – for now

I went to the signing ceremony of a book about the Kennewick Man at the Natural History Museum. Douglas Owsley, the author, is a real hero. He stood up to the forces of politically correct superstition to get the science done.

The Kennewick Man skeleton was discovered in Washington State back in 1996. At first they thought it was the skeleton of a settler, since he did not have characteristics of Native Americans. They were surprised to find that it was more than 9000 years old.
At that point, the local Indian tribes claimed him and demanded that scientific investigation stop. They wanted to destroy the remains, i.e. rebury them and not tell where. According to their creation myths, they had always been there, so anybody from there was theirs. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”

I am not a believer in creation science, whether usual or native varieties. I respect that some people do believe this stuff, but I don’t believe we should give them the authority to veto science, but this was what was happening. Read the linked article. I think you will be appalled by what our government mindlessly did. They went so far as to destroy (vandalize) the site.

The lesson is that science is never really settled. We should never legislate science or stand in the way or inquiry. Pre-history is more complex than we like. The ancestors of the Native American were not the only ones and maybe not the first to enter North America. Telling this story should be the work of historians and scientists, not tribal leaders, politicians or bureaucrats.

We are still not safe. The remains are still held by the ACE and the tribes are still trying to get them bones “back” so that they can remove them forever from scientific study. But we have learned a lot already. An important lesson already is that races are not permanent. This man would belong to none of the modern ethnic groups or races. We are always in a state of change.

New Deal murals

The Smithsonian Museum of American Art did a program today on the mural art of the New Deal, especially emphasizing the work of Texas Artist Tom Lea.  These murals were commissioned by the government during the Great Depression.  They were meant to give artists useful work and celebrate America in all its regional diversity.  Most were in public buildings such as post offices, which is why they are currently in some peril.  Structures from the 1930s are often reaching the end of their useful lives.  They are being torn down or converted to other uses.

What I found particularly interesting was the relationships between artists, officials and the people.  This art was never meant as a personal expression of an individual artist.  They were designed by committee; the community made decisions about themes and sometimes about details.   This is what makes them more interesting.

They are not about the artists themselves and their particular vision.  They are bigger than the artist.  They are indeed about self-expression, but not merely self.   Artists were paid in installments.  If they produced something their patrons didn’t want, they might not be paid.  Maybe because it is not the work of an individual artist, the murals are full of allegory and symbolism.  They celebrate the town or region.  Since they were meant to be in public places where people would see them every day, they had to make sense to people every day.   The government paid the artists, but the work was truly market driven.

The focus was a case study of the Texas artist Tom Lea and particularly a mural he did called stampede done for the post office in Odessa, Texas.  Originally, the mural was high on a wall over the tellers.   When people came in, they looked up at it and probably had time to contemplate it while waiting in line.   It was moved when a new post office was built nearby, but it was placed in an out-of-the-way place and at eye level.  Context is important.  Is it really the same work of art in its new location?

Air & Space Museum

I am working to figure out where I might be most useful and it is interesting. I went to the Air & Space Museum. It is very popular with overseas audiences. It is very hard to send actual stuff to partner museums and that is a specialty beyond my skill set. But I do understand outreach and we talked about speaker programs along with poster shows. Smithsonian has recently done a poster show on space suits called Suited for Space, about an exhibit of the same name.

Space suits are interesting.  They are made of layers of different metals and plastics and they are bullet proof.  They need this because little pieced of stuff are flying around space at high speed, like bullets.

Another interesting thing about space suits is that they are disintegrating. They are produced of layers of plastics and metals. As the plastics decompose, they produce acid that corrodes the suits.

Early space suits were tailor made for the particular astronaut, but today’s space travelers get their suits off the rack.   We talked a little about the movie “Gravity.”  There are lots of things that are improbable, but one of the impossible things is that an individual cannot just put on or take off space suites.
Of course, there are many other things the museum can produce.  We just need to make the connections.  That is very simple in theory but not easy in practice.

My pictures are mostly self explanatory. You see the Spirit of St Louis.  Charles Lindbergh donated it to Smithsonian with the condition that it never leave.   Lindbergh was the world’s leading celebrity in 1927 after he flew alone in that little plane all the way to France.
Flying across the Atlantic was a really big deal that changed the course of history.  Before the flight, the U.S. was not a leader in aviation.  The Lindbergh flight caught the popular imagination. It is impossible to quantify the effect, but it was significant.
Others were trying to make the crossing.

In the underground castle

I want to brag that I have an office in the Smithsonian castle. In fact, my office is three stories below ground. It is not so bad, as you can see from the picture. It is kind of like a mall. The sunlight filters in. Much of the Smithsonian is underground. They didn’t want to build up too much and change the look of the Capitol Mall, so they dug down. Also underground are the highways. So while you walk in the gardens or on the grass, the cars are driving below and people like me are laboring, Morlock-like, below ground.

Maybe the word labor is not appropriate. I still cannot believe my good fortune in getting the job. My biggest challenge will be too many great opportunities. I have been there only two days and I am already filling my notebooks with ideas for connections and partnerships.

In my business, we sometime use the unfortunate phrase “hit the ground running.” It is supposed to be a compliment, implying getting right to work, taking charge & moving quickly. I don’t believe in hitting the ground running. When you hit the ground running, you often fall down later. Beyond that, you might be moving fast, but maybe in the wrong direction. I think it is better to land firm, take a look around and decide based on what you see, even when you have a long way to go and a short time to get there. A year is a short time when there are so many possibilities. In this case more than most, it will be a great delight to do the looking around.

My picture up top is outside my office area, a long way underground but well done.  Next is the garden.  I think that my office is more of less under the place I took the picture. After that is the Mall with the Capitol and last is the Ripley Center.  That is how you get to my office, you go down steps and then take the escalator to the bottom.

Background on my new job at Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution, established in 1846 with the mandate for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”, today comprises 19 museums, numerous research facilities, and the National Zoo. The Smithsonian’s collections include over 137 million artifacts, works of art and scientific specimens that attract more than 30 million visitors every year.
The State Department signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Smithsonian Institution in 2012 to enhance and broaden joint collaboration in a wide range of areas. The Office of International Relations (OIR) in the S. Dillon Ripley Center is the Smithsonian office responsible for managing that collaboration. The State Department provides a Senior Adviser to the OIR.  That person is the principal point of contact and starting point for all interaction with the Smithsonian. The current adviser is John A. Matel – please feel free to contact him at: or

The Smithsonian has a vast and growing array of resources publicly available online. Whether you want to plan an official program or just enjoy the Smithsonian’s unparalleled offerings, the following resources will be of interest:
Smithsonian Web Site – A wealth of information on all that’s happening right now at the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian Education – Collection of lesson plans, online interactive, videos, exhibitions and more for educators, families, and students.
Smithsonian Mobile – A listing of Smithsonian created mobile apps, games, and websites that can be downloaded and used anywhere in the world.
Smithsonian Collections – A searchable database of over 8 million objects around the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian Blogs –  A listing of Smithsonian blogs that showcase activities behind the scenes and complement current exhibitions.
Smithsonian Events – A sortable calendar of all events at the Smithsonian by day; can be sorted by live webcasts.
Smithsonian Virtual Exhibitions – A searchable listing of virtual exhibitions hosted by various Smithsonian museums.
Smithsonian YouTube – Smithsonian channel on YouTube; includes listing of individual museums’ YouTube channels
Smithsonian Folkways Music – Extensive collection of rare recordings of classic traditional and folk music from around the world, including such American artists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly
Smithsonian Libraries – Gateway to the collection.
The Smithsonian Channel – Overview of the Smithsonian Channel’s most recent programming, including content that you can download and use.
The Smithsonian in 3D!
The American Spaces Project – The Smithsonian is also currently developing an extensive catalog of unique content that will be made available to all U.S. diplomatic missions abroad for their use in American Corners, American Shelves, or in other venues.
Research Opportunities – The Smithsonian welcomes students and post-doctoral fellows from around the world. The publication Smithsonian Opportunities for Research and Study includes all the key information.
This is a PowerPoint prepared by my predecessor.  I will use it until I get familiar with the place.