National Press Club

New Smithsonian head urges emphasis on arts and humanities, but not at expense of science

December 8, 2015 | By Gwen Flanders |

New Smithsonican Secretary David Skorton addresses National Press Club luncheon Dec. 8

New Smithsonican Secretary David Skorton addresses National Press Club luncheon Dec. 8

Photo/Image: Al Teich

David Skorton, the new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, made it clear Tuesday that he sees his organization’s mission in broad terms.

In a National Press Club luncheon address, Skorton talked about the need for a community to agree on values in order to solve society’s problems.

“One way,” he said, “is to reverse our nation’s seeming disinterest and disinvestment in the arts and humanities, but to do so in a way that does not sacrifice our investment in science. ... The arts and humanities complement science, and together they make us better thinkers, better decision makers and better citizens.”

Skorton, 66, who took the helm of the Smithsonian on July 1 after a career as a cardiologist and educator led him most recently to the presidency of Cornell University, noted the emphasis by schools and governments on science, technology, engineering and math, an emphasis he said has come at the expense of the humanities.

“To understand what it means to be human and to understand the complex problems that the world now faces require us to deploy every technique of understanding at our disposal, including and especially those at the heart of the visual and performing arts, social sciences and cultural studies,” Skorton said.

“Our national security alone would benefit if we all shared a better understanding of different religions, languages, philosophies and world history.”

Museums are well-positioned for the mission, he said. He cited a program by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which brought together noted philanthropists Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and David Rockefeller Jr. to hear about activists working through Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library on poverty, alienated youth and other social problems.

Questions from the luncheon audience focused on the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and zoo:

- Will the institution’s finances ever necessitate paid admission? “I hope I never see the day ... when we will charge admission,” Skorton said.

- Will there be a Hispanic museum similar to the African American History and Culture Museum scheduled to open in September 2016? A national museum requires an act of Congress, Skorton pointed out. Still, he said, the Smithsonian is engaged in a “growing, serious role” of telling the story of the American Latino.

- Are blockbuster exhibits needed to build an audience? Skorton talked about the opportunity to be in the presence of great art or another meaningful exhibit, then noted that a national museum must also “cater to those who prefer not to leave home” by creating engaging exhibits online. “We’ll have to have a foot in both worlds,” he said.

- Will the Smithsonian expand exhibits to other countries? The Smithsonian should “tell the story of America” around the world, Skorton said. Under consideration: an exhibit space in London’s Olympic Park.