The Smithsonian – Looking Back

November 22, 2009


Smithsonian Castle

You can’t have a blog about museums and not mention the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. It was founded in the 19th century following a bequest to the US from the British scientist James Smithson. Astonishingly, Smithson had never visited the US. A bit like myself, who had neither crossed the Atlantic nor heard of the Smithsonian when I applied for an internship there in summer 2001! The School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, where I was studying at the time, offered to sponsor a student to do an internship with the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH), and one of the Center’s staff was offering accommodation (which turned out so well we are now like family and my son can call himself lucky to have three grandmothers, but that’s a different story!). With travel and housing taken care of this was possibly my once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit America (I’ve been back at least half a dozen times since, but of course I didn’t know that at the time), what did it matter that I wasn’t particularly interested in museums, beyond your average visitor, and didn’t have a clue what the Smithsonian was about. It wasn’t until much later, when some other American friends of mine commented on how they had unsuccessfully tried to get an internship there, that I realised what a big deal it was. And so I ended up working at the CFCH for two months that summer (possibly not the best time of year to be introduced to the D.C. climate if you’re from Scotland – why they built a city on top of a swamp is beyond me), first assisting with family activities at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and then helping with some research for a future programme and revising some educational materials for schools. I think it’s fair to say that summer changed my life. I returned home with a new appreciation and enthusiasm for museums, tore up my application for the teacher’s training college, and applied to the infamous Museum Studies Department at Leicester University instead. And the rest, as they say, is history. Oh, and I do now know what the Smithsonian is!


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