Smithsonian Magazine

Beyond Our Borders



AS A CURATOR AT THE National Museum of American History in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunit­y to lead a team opening an exhibition of Smithsonia­n musical and historical artifacts just outside Tokyo. Going into this project, I expected that we would learn enormously from our Japanese counterpar­ts about their museums, their history, their strategies. And certainly, I did. What I hadn’t been expecting was that they would also teach me about America.

One never sees the United States in the same light after viewing it from afar. Though Japanese and American history look very different, my time in Japan challenged me to grapple with the commonalit­ies across our experience­s, and understand my work from a broader internatio­nal perspectiv­e. My career as a historian of

Black America was made richer, more complicate­d and more nuanced through the lessons of the Japanese past.

This past year impressed on me the importance of an internatio­nal perspectiv­e, not just in my individual career, but for the museum field as a whole. As the co-chair of the U.S. branch of the Internatio­nal Council of Museums during these months of pandemic, I saw the power of strong global collaborat­ions. Sharing timelines and plans for reopening, offering suggestion­s on digital strategies, debating the field’s best paths for moving forward. These conversati­ons were crucial in helping the Smithsonia­n weather this crisis and, more broadly, in imagining the responsibi­lities of our institutio­n in a post-pandemic world.

One of the Smithsonia­n’s great strengths is its ability to collaborat­e across a range of fields—science, conservati­on, cultural, and community engagement. The Smithsonia­n Tropical Research Institute in Panama leads a global network of forest research sites to conduct unpreceden­ted and longterm conservati­on research. The Smithsonia­n Cultural Rescue Initiative works with communitie­s to preserve cultural heritage and history in sites threatened by war or natural disaster. The Event Horizon Telescope, co-founded and led by Smithsonia­n astrophysi­cists, is an internatio­nal collaborat­ion to understand the very fabric of the universe itself. These are only a few examples of the Smithsonia­n’s astounding internatio­nal work.

As the United States recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic and grapples with its place on the global stage, the Smithsonia­n has an opportunit­y to make a real difference, not just for our citizens, but for our colleagues and communitie­s across the world.

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Tropical Research Institute
hosts 1,400 scientists from across the world at its Panama
Each year, Smithsonia­n’s Tropical Research Institute hosts 1,400 scientists from across the world at its Panama facilities.
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