The Smithsonian Institution turns 177 years old today. With its inventory of more than 154 million items in dozens of collections, it has been dubbed “the nation’s attic.” Its roster of 19 museums and 21 libraries lends itself well to the image of a staid, bureaucratic snooze, especially when taken together with more than 200 additional libraries and museums across the nation that are “Smithsonian Affiliates.”
Yet for those who have visited any of National Museums in Washington, D.C. — Air and Space, American History, African-American History and Culture, Natural History – or the Freer Gallery or the National Zoo, the Smithsonian clearly lives up to its original mandate. James Smithson, a British scientist, in the early 1830s bequeathed his sizable estate to the United States in order “to found “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” among all people. It isn’t the static buildings and collections, but the circulation of the historical objects in and out of engaging exhibits, the public programming that turns book-learning into street smarts, the open-access policy on much of the digitized collections, the scholars rubbing elbows and honing ideas in nine active research centers, and the networked interaction of those “affiliates” that make the Smithsonian a vibrant engine of learning across all the disciplines of human experience.
I am struck by the disconnect between the assumptions one might make about an “institution” at the age of 177 years, made up of so many museums and libraries, and the actual life and vigor of what happens in all those locations. The same kind of disconnect too often stands between the Christian church and the community that looks at it from the outside. As an institution, we are at least 1,600 years old and the Bible around which we center our lives is older than the institution. We have imposing edifices that can be less than inviting in their superhuman scale and monumental construction. Not infrequently, those buildings are protected by, or at least adjacent to, cemeteries of similarly daunting age and expanse. We can look an awful lot like a snooze, too.
All of that resource and heritage, all the investment of the saints who have gone before us, all the power of the “book of books” come to life as they energize us to carry into our daily lives the vision of God’s good news for the world and a commitment to live it out. We come into the institution to grow in our faith, the relationship God has created with us, through fellowship and worship and learning and mutual support. Then we go out of the institution to ask what our world needs to draw closer to the life God intends for it. That back-and-forth rhythm keeps us searching the treasures for what is meaningful in the world today, on the one hand, and gives the world the benefit of the riches we have received from God, on the other. Stop the reciprocating flow and both the church and our daily lives begin to stagnate. The mandate – “you are the light of the world; you shall be my witnesses” – gets lost and the snooze begins to take over.
Happy birthday and congratulations, Smithsonian! For an attic, you make a pretty good role model on keeping old treasures meaningful and opening up possibilities for grappling with tomorrow’s challenges.