While many State Department officers have worked closely with Smithsonian experts over the years, the creation of a detail assignment for a Foreign Service Officer at the Smithsonian Institution has opened new opportunities for both organizations.
As the world’s largest museum and research complex, the Smithsonian is increasingly engaging with broader world audiences, particularly non-elites and youths. The State Department, meanwhile, is eager to use the Smithsonian’s expertise and collections in art, culture, history and science to enhance its own engagement with overseas individuals and institutions, and increase dissemination of information about the United States abroad.
Every week brings new possibilities for greater interaction. Whether advising museums in Oman or promoting interest in tree banding by students around the world, the Smithsonian’s international work helps put a face on the State Department’s commitment to education, culture, the environment and scientific cooperation. For instance, the two institutions’ collaborative planning for International Jazz Day in April offered U.S. Embassies access to the Smithsonian’s extensive jazz collections, recordings, websites and activities.
Recent cooperative ventures include Smithsonian help in designing American Spaces, the “Amazing Ocean” mobile app using National Museum of Natural History content, and a poster show based on a photography exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Meanwhile, Smithsonian experts traveling internationally have served as speakers at events organized by U.S. missions. For example, students at a science center in the West Bank met with a National Air and Space Museum historian while, in Chile, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Science spoke with students at the embassy’s science-focused American Corner.
In another collaboration, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv partnered with the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center for Invention and Innovation to create a Spark!Lab at the Ukranian Art Arsenal in Kyiv during the month of September 2012 (mentioned in Take Five’s recent piece on building relationships in public diplomacy.) With the success of this Kyiv pilot, the Lemelson Center hopes the project will be a model for future international collaborations promoting interactive science learning.
In a March 22 ceremony to sign a Memorandum of Understanding making the State Department’s partnership with the Smithsonian Institution official, Under Secretary of the Smithsonian for History, Art and Culture Richard Kurin noted the benefits of having a senior State Department foreign service officer at the Smithsonian. “After the earthquake in Haiti when we wanted to provide our expertise to help with cultural relief and recovery, we were very grateful to have the recently appointed State Department liaison on our staff as we worked with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and other partners to preserve Haiti’s rich cultural heritage,” he said. “Since then, the advice, expertise and contacts provided by each of these officers have helped us develop closer collaboration here in Washington and better access to embassy resources overseas.”
Science and technology projects offer additional areas for cooperation, with Smithsonian research, facilities and programs under way in nearly 100 countries. A great deal of this research is in developing nations, with projects in countries such as Gabon, Papua New Guinea, and Peru. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama, conducts research on biodiversity around the world. The State Department’s Bureau of Oceans, Environmental and Science Affairs regularly partners with the Smithsonian on projects such as the Global Tiger Initiative, while the National Zoo’s pandas are a matter of high-level diplomatic and public interest. Embassy officers and locally employed staff in environment, science, technology and health (ESTH) positions overseas usually spend a half day at the National Museum of Natural History as part of their training, going behind the scenes to view some of the museum’s 127 million objects.
As Senior Advisor for International Affairs to the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, I work in the complex linking the Freer and Sackler Galleries and National Museum of African Art. This location within the suite housing the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations provides access to people who know the Department well from years of hosting participants in the International Visitor Leadership Program, cooperating on cultural heritage issues, briefing Foreign Service Institute classes and assisting foreign embassies. The office’s director, Francine Berkowitz, is known to generations of Department cultural officers who have turned to her for assistance through the years.
After serving as consul general in Shanghai and at posts in Thailand, Hungary and Sweden, the Smithsonian assignment is a new experience for me; with a season pass to one of America’s greatest treasures, I can apply my public diplomacy experience to help posts take advantage of an institution that is highly regarded by foreign visitors, embassies, scientists, museums, educators and tourists. The Smithsonian is, in the words of Secretary Wayne Clough, “a lens on the world for America, and a lens on America for the world.” The detail makes the Smithsonian’s amazing resources more accessible to the Department while supporting the Smithsonian’s goal of engaging a greater percentage of the world.