Smithsonian’s David Skorton on the Future of the Institution

November 23, 2015

Above, Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton shares his vision for the future of the Institution.

Editor’s Note: Watch the full conversation with Smithsonian Institution Secretary David Skorton and Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.

The new secretary of the Smithsonian, the institution’s 13th in its 169-year history, has an unlikely background for serving at the head of the world’s largest museum and research complex. David Skorton is a board-certified cardiologist who has served two tenures as a university president, first for three years at the University of Iowa, and then for nine years at Cornell University. It is from the latter institution that he came to the Smithsonian.

Asked whether he preferred to be called doctor, or professor, or president, Skorton told Walter Isaacson at a recent Washington Ideas Roundtable, “Everyone here can call me David, but Walter, I’d like you to call me ‘your excellency.’”

“As you know, but you’re too nice to say,” Skorton told Isaacson, “I really don’t know much about the museum world. I come from a career lifetime spent in life sciences. I’m a cardiologist; I took care of, up until a few months ago, teenagers and young adults with inborn heart disease. So I’m comfortable in that world. I’m an avid amateur musician. So I’m comfortable in that world. And I’m just learning about the museum world.”

“But I’m reading avidly.”

Among his reading list, he said, are numerous books on museum studies and the articles about “the so-called twenty-first century museum.” What that means exactly, and how you shape one, are at the forefront of his mind four months into his tenure. “When you have a venerable institution that’s been around for a very long time — and the Smithsonian is one of those — the only sure way to do something that’s really different is to turn the page on a new chapter.”

Skorton cited as an example the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture and its head, Lonnie Bunch, who, along with the museum’s chief curator, Paul Gardullo, joined the Arts Program this past April for a Roundtable with Damian Woetzel. Skorton called the NMAAHC “beautiful and profound…a long, long overdue exploration of African American history and culture in this country that we sorely need.”

However, when it comes to some of the more entrenched Smithsonian establishments—its zoo, nine research facilities, and 19 museums and galleries—jetting boldly into the future isn’t quite so simple. As Skorton noted, as hard as it is to create something like NMAAHC, sometimes just changing the shape of a 100-year-old museum—for example, the Natural History Museum—can be far more difficult. In short: The Smithsonian is a crucible for the struggle between tradition and innovation.

The Natural History Museum is a particularly stark example, as it features 126 million of the Smithsonian’s breathtaking 138 million objects.

The three most common issues Skorton says he reads about when it comes to the “twenty-first century museum” are:

  1. Object-based encounters (that is, actually visiting a museum rather than viewing an online collection);
  2. The question of “diversity, writ large” in audience, employment, programming, and themes; and
  3. How to balance STEM disciplines with the arts and humanities.

In his conversation with Skorton, Isaacson observed that “instead of seeing things as ‘the arts’ or the STEM disciplines, you have stood at the intersection. Is there a way to make sure that people can get to that combination?”

Skorton was quick to label himself a “cheerleader” for this issue, but not an expert, and said that the Smithsonian was working to address that kind of question within its infrastructure. “I’m always concerned that we don’t portray the arts and the humanities as handmaidens to the sciences,” he said. He warned that defining the matter as STEM v. STEAM may lead one to apply creative thinking toward solving a scientific or otherwise technical problem. But, Skorton noted, “there’s also this intrinsic value of expressivity and perception that I can’t get any other way [except through creativity].”

Among the efforts Skorton has initiated to instill progress into the Smithsonian is a drive to bring in more public input, in particular through the establishment of a youth-advisory council. It’s a project being worked on in collaboration with Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, and Skorton believes it can have a lasting impact on how the museums under his purview shape their activities and exhibitions. He said that the inspiration to connect with young people in this substantive way first came when he was president of Cornell and his wife convinced him to live in a freshmen dorm each fall.

Skorton, who is also an amateur flautist and former Latin-jazz radio DJ, also emphasized the vital need for a bottom-up approach to any moves he makes within the Smithsonian. Venerable institutions such as his are “delicate organisms,” he said, that must be “handled very gently and very carefully.” To that end, he maintains a practice he also began at Cornell: freely offering out his email address, and encouraging everyone to write him. Skorton’s email is, and he said that among the many forms of communication that he is happy to receive are poetry submissions. His office has a poem of the week displayed on a lectern, along with the poet’s bio.

“The ability to create a learning culture — and a curiosity culture in this country,” said Walter Isaacson, “there’s no institution better positioned to do so than the Smithsonian.”

Aidan Flax-Clark is senior project manager of the Aspen Institute Arts Program