While the mission of the Smithsonian has remained constant, the nature of knowledge has not.
At the end of the nineteenth Century the advancement of knowledge generally meant heroic discovery or patient inquiry conducted in isolation; the Smithsonian’s infrastructure was accordingly designed to document and display physical artifacts related to that process. Yet in the twenty-first century, as Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough has noted, “the great issues of the day typically are interdisciplinary.” Advances in knowledge increasingly require collaboration and open communication across both disciplinary and geographical boundaries. The complexity and urgency of terrestrial challenges have compelled an increase in the value placed on knowledge developed in the search for practical solutions to global challenges.
Museums today provide a bridge from past discoveries to future opportunities. Among the Smithsonian’s greatest assets is its unique ability to reach, and to touch, millions of people with inspiring and educational experiences. At their best, the Smithsonian’s programs open minds and change lives. In that spirit the Smithsonian can use its great collections and unique location to inspire its visitors to think deeply about the interaction between our planet and the life that populates it, about our major challenges, and about the astounding progress that is attainable through entrepreneurship and innovation.
At different intervals in the history of the United States, the Mall and the Smithsonian have provided us, the people of this country, with a setting for our own redefinition and reinvention. In the midst of the Great Depression, Andrew Mellon funded the creation of a National Gallery of Art, to affirm America’s position as a global power. In the midst of the Cold War, the Smithsonian established the Air & Space Museum, to celebrate the trans-atmospheric supremacy that was, for a time, so critical to our national self-conception.
Now the time has come, once again, for the Mall to play a central role in the renewal of our national narrative; the time has come to establish a permanent space to recognize–in words President Obama himself spoke on the Mall in his inaugural address—”the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things–some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.” No plexiglass this time. Rather Maker Faire. Tech Shop. Fab Lab and D-Lab. Resources for brainstorming about entrepreneurial solutions to global challenges. A “Genius Bar” with the resources to start a company in an hour or less. And maybe a few robotic Pterodactyls swooping down occasionally from the high arches to pick up trash.
Remarkably, there exists an empty building on the Mall that can do this. It is a building with a history perfectly suited to celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation by all Americans and advancing America’s vital role in the 21st century as a source of entrepreneurial solutions to global challenges. Completed in 1881, the Arts & Industries building (situated directly to the East of the Smithsonian Castle) was the first building expressly built as a museum on the Mall. It was designed by renowned architect Adolf Cluss to receive the collections of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The building was also designed to exhibit the results of research being conducted by Smithsonian scientists working in the Castle next door. But the exhibits were left largely untouched for much of the next century, changing the function of the building from celebrating the new to archiving the old. The original Arts & Industries exhibits were eventually moved, and the building closed to the public in 2004.
The first Secretary of the Smithsonian once said that “The worth and importance of the Institution is not to be estimated by what it accumulates within the walls of its building, but by what it sends forth to the world.” The same can be said for the United States. Our worth in the twenty-first century will be determined by the continued efforts of the millions of entrepreneurs and innovators who daily invent a new and more promising reality for their communities, their regions, their country, and the planet we all share.
There is no progress without purpose. Identity is what we are, but initiative is what we become. A nation needs both. Let’s renew our national narrative by creating at the Arts & Industries building a National Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.