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Consortia Online Events
Castle Lecture Series
Noon–1pm
Talks are held monthly and are webcast live. Videos archived here.

Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics
12 December 2014
Live webcast and archive available here.

Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security
9 October 2014
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 12, 2014
Archive available here.

Scots in the American West Symposium
8 August 2013
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 14, 2013
Archive available here.

The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans
11 October 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 10, 2012
Archive available here.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
March 1, 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 18, 2011
Archive available here.
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Consortium for Understanding the American Experience


2010 Grand Challenges Award Projects

Level One Projects

The Age of Plastics
Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age . . . and now “The Age of Plastics.” The discovery and development of synthetic polymers and polymer composites, commonly known as “plastics,” is one of the greatest achievements of the 19th and 20th centuries. With Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber and the synthesis of cellulose nitrate, both of which occurred around 1840, there began a materials revolution that would permeate all facets of American life and how people see the world. Rapid advances in plastic technology made possible equally significant advances in other fields, including aviation, medicine, and food packaging, which in turn have transformed the way we move, interact with people and the world around us, and our quality and span of life. Some of these transformations have been positive, while others—such as the impact of plastic on the natural environment—are cause for concern. Nevertheless, in only 170 years it has become nearly impossible to imagine a world without plastic.

“The Age of Plastics” is a collaboration of scientists, curators, conservators, and scholars from the Museum Conservation Institute; Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; National Air and Space Museum; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; National Museum of American History; the Getty Conservation Institute; and the George Washington University. The Smithsonian Grand Challenge award will help spearhead a cross-disciplinary study of the phenomenon of plastic and its impacts on 19th–21st century life, culture, and the environment through team building, a survey of plastics in the Cooper-Hewitt collection, and “The Age of Plastics” symposium scheduled for Fall 2011.

Related Resources

  • Plastic has transformed the world so that it is almost impossible to imagine life without it. In June of 2012, The Age of Plastic: Ingenuity + Responsibility symposium probed the significance of plastic in our lives and how the Smithsonian documents and preserves its collection objects that contain plastic.
  • What do some marine biologists and museum conservationists have in common? Both work on the challenges posed by plastic – from waste and debris in marine environments to the art and historical objects that contain plastic materials. Nancy Wallace, program director for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, participated as a panelist in the symposium The Age of Plastic, and NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration shared some interesting connections between museum object conservation and environmental conservation.
  • The Chemical Heritage Foundation explores some of the topics examined at The Age of Plastic symposium.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Odile Madden (Principal Investigator)
Kim Cullen Cobb
Jia-Sung Tsang
Don Williams

Museum Conservation Institute
Annie Hall

Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum
Kate Moomaw

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Chris Moore
Alex Spencer
Lisa Young
National Air and Space Museum

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures


The American Century of Astronomy and Astrophysics
The 20th century was a remarkable period of growth in our knowledge of the structure and evolution of the universe. At its beginning astronomy consisted of creating catalogs of stars, nebulas, asteroids, and comets. By its end we had learned that the Sun is an average star and is one of 100 billion members of a normal galaxy, which is merely one of a 100 billion galaxies that are expanding apart at an accelerating rate in a universe that began with an explosive “Big Bang.” During this time the astronomers’ tool kit expanded from visible light telescopes to include radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray telescopes. Almost all of this was accomplished by both native- and foreign-born astronomers, men and women, working with a series of increasingly large telescopes built in the United States for use on mountain tops, or for launch into space by NASA. We will examine the factors that resulted in the United States being at the center of these activities. They include the contributions of certain dedicated individuals such as George Ellery Hale who had the foresight, determination, and ability to attract support for the construction of a series of increasingly large telescopes. The support of philanthropists was another. The radio telescope pioneers Karl Jansky and Grote Reber can be compared to inventors such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. The results of this study will be presented as either an exhibition at the National Museum of American History or as a book.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Paul Gorenstein (Principal Investigator)
Wallace Tucker

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Deborah J. Warner National Museum of American History

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe


Design Across the Smithsonian
Design impacts every aspect of our life—from the making of objects and cities to the stewardship of natural resources.  It sits at the intersection of science, technology, and the visual arts. This expanded conception of design and its direct connection to the Smithsonian collection will be the subject of a major exhibition, Design Across the Smithsonian, to open at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in fall 2013. With a focus on process, the historical continuum of design, the natural and the man-made, as well as the functional, this exhibition will draw from examples at the Smithsonian Institution to advance the public’s understanding of design. Objects from museums and scientific research centers will illustrate pivotal technological and social changes. Designing for high performance, for example, is about designing for extremes as exemplified in materials, spacesuits, and aircraft from the National Air and Space Museum. And, around the world, Smithsonian scientists are studying critical issues like climate change.  How is their work and collaborations with engineers and designers leading to products that help solve environmental problems? The exhibition will explore how design thinking has shaped our world and how design can best be used to shape a positive future.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Cara McCarty (Principal Investigator)
Matilda McQuaid (Principal Investigator)

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
Diane N'Diaye

Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Steven Turner

National Museum of American History
Barbara Stauffer

National Museum of Natural History
Sally Shuler

National Science Resources Center
Jane Milosch

Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture
Nicholas Bell

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mary Augusta Thomas

Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Frederica Adelman Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures


The Preservation of Time-Based and Digital Art at the Smithsonian
Time-based media art—film, video, and software-based art—is a vital and growing part of Smithsonian art museums’ collections. While the term “time-based” may be used to refer to a range of works that rely on duration and motion as part of the viewing experience, our project will focus on works of fine art that include film, slides, video, or software as an essential component.

To accomplish this goal, we will survey current practices for the acquisition, conservation, and exhibition of time-based and digital art at the Smithsonian. We will invite Smithsonian stakeholders and two outside experts to discuss our findings. A final report will provide recommendations about protocols and procedures for collecting and preserving time-based art.

This interdisciplinary project, which reflects the goals of both the American Experience and World Cultures Consortia, will address the preservation of work by an international host of artists. We look forward to consulting with our colleagues in fields including history, anthropology, and planetary science about their preservation practices for time-based collections. Ultimately, our research promises to position the Smithsonian as a leader in the preservation of time-based and digital art, ensuring the ongoing accessibility and survival of important examples of contemporary cultural expression.

Download the Time-Based Art Conservation Symposium Report, March 2010.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Carol Huh (Principal Investigator)

Freer and Sackler Galleries
Gwynne Ryan (Principal Investigator)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Anne Collins Goodyear (Principal Investigator)
Alex Cooper
Rosemary Fallon
Lou Molnar

National Portrait Gallery
Karen Milbourne

National Museum of African Art
Michael Mansfield Smithsonian American Art Museum
Sarah Stauderman Smithsonian Institution Archives

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures


Reclaiming the Edge: The Anacostia River, Urban Waterways, and Civic Engagement
The Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) is developing a research and educational initiative that focuses on urban waterways, especially rivers, their watersheds, and associated creeks and streams. A collaborative partnership among Smithsonian Institution curators and other scholars will generate ideas, innovative approaches, and dynamic interactive presentations from shared perspectives on environmental justice, civic engagement, ecological conservation, and community development. Along with ACM staff, the collaboration consists of curators and scholars from the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), as well as from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Anacostia Watershed Society.

From the Grand Challenge perspectives of “Understanding the American Experience” and “Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet,” the project will explore the impact of social conditions, environmental burdens, and resource depletion on urban communities; study civic oversight and community involvement on efforts to restore urban waterways in several national and international sites; and uncover cultural and recreational traditions associated with rivers.

The project goal is to reinforce a sense of citizen ownership and responsibility for urban waterways that will lead to direct action and to improvement of waterways in any neighborhood. Among other things, this initiative will support an ACM exhibition on urban waterways (September 2012), the NMAI Hawai’i exhibition (2013), and other Smithsonian-planned exhibitions and scholarly studies.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Gail Lowe (Principal Investigator)

Anacostia Community Museum
Jeffrey Stine

National Museum of American History
Doug Herman

National Museum of the American Indian
Joshua Bell National Museum of Natural History

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet

Level Two Projects


This painting, from a series entitled Zulu, meaning sky or heavens, refers to the Khoi San peoples' myth about the creation of the Milky Way (a girl threw ashes into the sky where they formed the Milky Way).
Untitled
Gavin Jantjes (b. South Africa)
1989-1990
Acrylic on canvas
H x W: 200 x 300 cm (78 3/4 x 118 1/8 in.)
Purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program
National Museum of African Art, 96-23-1

This painting, from a series entitled "Zulu," meaning sky or heavens, refers to the Khoi San peoples' myth about the creation of the Milky Way (a girl threw ashes into the sky where they formed the Milky Way).

African Cosmos: Stellar Art. An Interdisciplinary Educational Initiative
African Cosmos: Stellar Art is the first major exhibition and publication that explores the historical legacy of African cultural astronomy and the ways that celestial bodies and phenomena serve as inspiration and symbols in the creation of African arts both traditional and contemporary. Outstanding works of art dating from ancient times to the present will illuminate Africa’s contributions to the science and practice of astronomy and show how celestial observations are central to social, cultural, and artistic expression. Colleagues from the National Museum of African Art and seven other Smithsonian units will build on the universal appeal of stargazing and space exploration to support a constellation of activities that are positioned to help meet the goal of two major Smithsonian Grand Challenge Award categories: Valuing World Cultures and Understanding the American Experience. 

Bridging the fields of art and science, the “African Cosmos” team has embraced the opportunity to offer innovative, cross-disciplinary educational programming that engages museum visitors, educators, and students in the wonders of our universe, and make lasting contributions toward arts integration into K–12 science curricula. The use of a cross-unit organizational plan for educational programming and outreach will demonstrate the ability of joint Smithsonian collaboration to lead to new levels of community engagement.

Related Resources

  • According to the New York Times, the exhibition African Cosmos: Stellar Arts is "…[a] show about the extent and persistence of cosmological consciousness in art, old and new, from the African continent. It's also a bold demonstration of a more specific reality: in Africa, art and science, including astronomy, have always intersected." The exhibition is on view through December 9, 2012 at the National Museum of African Art.
  • What do Africa, stamps, and the cosmos have in common? What are the latest developments in astronomy in Africa? How are dancers inspired by the African skies? Curators, artists, astrophysicists, and staff at the National Museum of African Art are tackling these topics on the blog Cosmos Diary.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Christine Kreamer (Principal Investigator)
Deborah Stokes (Principal Investigator)
Jessica Martinez
Nicole Shivers

National Museum of African Art
Robert Hall

Anacostia Community Museum
Anne Caspari
Mychalene Giampaoli
Andrew Johnston
Vickie Lindsey
Jennifer McIntosh

National Air and Space Museum
Doug Herman

National Museum of the American Indian
Margery Gordon

National Museum of Natural History
Jeff Meade

National Postal Museum
Emily Murgia

National Zoological Park
Martin Elvis
Marie Machacek

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Fredie Adelman Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures



The Earth Matters team is planning to bring African artists to Washington, DC to install earthworks in Smithsonian gardens, such as the Enid A. Haupt Garden viewed here from an upper level of the Castle.
The Earth Matters team is planning to bring African artists to Washington, DC to install earthworks in Smithsonian gardens, such as the Enid A. Haupt Garden viewed here from an upper level of the Castle.

Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor
Across time, individuals and communities alike have looked to the Earth beneath our feet for both aesthetic inspiration and nutritional and material wealth. The Earth is the source of rich minerals, the site of eternal rest in many burial practices, the subject of landscape and environmental arts, and the surface upon which we build our homes—as well as the surface upon which we pile our waste. And yet the disciplines that explore each of these issues rarely engage with one another. “Earth Matters” is the first scholarly project to bring together insights from diverse cultural, social science, and natural science perspectives to investigate the complex relationships between humans and the land upon which we all live, work, and frame our days.

With participation from the National Museum of African Art, the Smithsonian Gardens, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Environmental Resource Center, “Earth Matters” will be part of an ongoing series of exhibitions, publications, and related programs that explore complex land-based issues, such as land and labor, land and nationalism, and land and industry. This project’s focus on African responses to the gifts and challenges of the land reveals the connections between Africa and America, allows us to better understand the cultural motivations that connect diverse communities to the land, and thus better enables us to sustain this planet and its biodiversity.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Karen Milbourne (Principal Investigator)
Gathoni Kamau
Jessica Martinez
Deborah Stokes

National Museum of African Art
Jeffrey Stein

National Museum of American History
Mary Jo Arnoldi
Hal Banks
Siobahn Starrs
Barbara Stauffer

National Museum of Natural History
Mark Haddon
Patrick Megonigal

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Cynthia Brown
Barbara Faust
Jonathan Kavalier

Smithsonian Institution Gardens

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures


The Immigration Initiative: Exploring and Presenting America's Cultural History of Migration and Immigration
During the 20th century, Americans developed a number of metaphors to describe the complexity and diversity of peoples who make up this nation. “Melting pot,” “nation of nations,” “salad bowl,” and “mosaic”—each of these terms came into widespread use in different decades.  Today, long-time descendants as well as new immigrants from around the world share and enrich this nation.

Immigration has emerged as a hot button political issue over the last decade, as has happened before in American history. Our goal is to provide a historical and cultural context for these contemporary conversations. We want to stimulate citizenship engagement with issues of migration and immigration, by using Smithsonian resources to help people develop a framework for their own experiences by locating their lives, families, and communities within the wider history and culture of the nation. We want to increase cultural historical literacy by demonstrating the complexities of American experience, past and present.

In the first year of this initiative, we will develop a national advisory committee and a national consortium of museum, university, community college, and community partners to foster conversations about migration and immigration, and to determine how best to document the experiences of recent immigrants to the United States. The major year-end product of the partnerships will be the National Day of Conversation about immigration to and migration within the United States, to be held in early 2012. 

For the immigration and migration initiative, we have two specific long-term goals: 1) production of a Folklife Festival in 2015 and 2) production of major anchor exhibition at the National Museum of American History (2016–2017).

Related Resources

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
James Deutsch (Principal Investigator)
Kevin Blackerby
Olivia Cadaval
Cristina Diaz-Carrera
Stephen Kidd
Diana N'Diaye

Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Fath Davis Ruffins (Principal Investigator)
Nancy Davis
Bonnie Lillenfold
Magdalena Mieri
Noriko Sanefuji
Steve Velasquez
William Yeingst

National Museum of American History
Harold Closter

Smithsonian Institution Affiliations
Ranald Woodaman Smithsonian Latino Center



Lockers with art installations created by students from District of Columbia schools, part of the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, on view through January 2, 2012.
Lockers with art installations created by students from District of Columbia schools, part of the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, on view through January 2, 2012.
Photo credit: Alcorta Connections.

Race: A Pan-Institutional Collaboration
The concept of race is embedded in many aspects of American life and impacts our laws and traditions, cultural affiliations, and educational systems. It shapes how we see ourselves and are seen by others. To clarify what race is and is not, the American Anthropology Association has developed an exhibition, “RACE: Are We So Different?,” to help individuals understand the contemporary science of human variation; the unique American history of race; and the current cultural experiences and perspectives of race. In June 2011 the exhibition will open at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and will be on view until December 2011. NMNH and The Smithsonian Associates are working in collaboration with eight Smithsonian museums and programs to create a sustainable pan-Institutional platform for programming on the themes of race, diversity, and identity. The Smithsonian programs will invite audiences to actively participate in conversations around these topics and will provide them with a space for fostering respectful and civil public discourse on these challenging issues.

Related Resources

  • Programming resources and additional information are available for the initiative RACE: A Pan-Institutional Collaboration and the accompanying exhibition that is open through January 8, 2012.
  • Unlike other ethnic minorities in the United States, American Indians are defined not solely by self-designation but by federal, state, and tribal laws. Blood quantum—originating from archaic notions of biological race and still codified in contemporary policy—remains one of the most important factors in determining tribal citizenship, access to services, and community recognition. This concept, however, is not without debate and contestation. On September 16, 2011 a symposium entitled Blood Quantum: Does 'Indian Blood' Still Matter was held that featured Native scholars who approach this important and complex topic from various perspectives.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Mary Jo Arnoldi (Principal Investigator)
Barbara Stauffer
Bill Watson

National Museum of Natural History
Susan Glasser (Principal Investigator)

The Smithsonian Associates
Claire Orologas

Freer and Sackler Galleries
Jessica Martinez

National Museum of African Art
Magdalene Mieri

National Museum of American History
Gabrielle Tayac

National Museum of the American Indian
Betsy Bowers
Maria Cossu

Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center
Ranald Woodaman Smithsonian Latino Center

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures



Henry Ke'a, Chief of Kaiapurama clan of Mapaio village, and Dr. Joshua A. Bell (Curator of Globalization, NMNH) with a working copy of a book of photographs taken by F.E. Williams in 1922 of the Purari Delta. Henry translated the captions of the 96 images into I'ai so that the book can be used in schools and by communities. Photographer Marlorie Stinfil
Henry Ke'a, Chief of Kaiapurama clan of Mapaio village, and Dr. Joshua A. Bell (Curator of Globalization, NMNH) with a working copy of a book of photographs taken by F.E. Williams in 1922 of the Purari Delta. Henry translated the captions of the 96 images into I'ai so that the book can be used in schools and by communities. Photographer Marlorie Stinfil

Recovering Voices
Funds awarded to the “Recovering Voices” initiative will help the pan-Institutional and interdisciplinary team of researchers and museum professionals from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage address one of this century’s key global challenges—the loss of languages and knowledge.  “Recovering Voices” combines Smithsonian scholarship and collections resources to 1) generate integrative methodology for language and knowledge maintenance; 2) conduct urgently needed ethnographic research and form community partnerships in five strategically chosen localities; and 3) develop three related Smithsonian exhibitions on language, language endangerment, and language revitalization.

Of the estimated 6,000 languages that exist around the world, 90 percent will have disappeared or will be threatened by extinction by 2100.  This crisis parallels the loss of biological diversity, yet remains largely unrecognized.  The demise of thousands of languages and associated systems of thought presents a permanent and, if not countered, irrevocable cultural and scientific loss to humanity.  Drawing upon the Smithsonian’s scholarly expertise, comprehensive collections, public outreach capacity, and convening power, “Recovering Voices” will establish a synergistic methodological platform for conducting interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research to help us build effective collaborations with communities facing language and knowledge loss.  Initially we will focus on five case studies: Purari Delta in Papua New Guinea; Hopi Pueblo in Arizona; San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Los Angeles; Meskwaki tribe in Iowa and Oklahoma; and native peoples in Anchorage, Alaska.  The data generated will further scientific understanding, enhance collections, inform outreach programs, and critically contribute to revitalizing language and knowledge transmission.  This work will feed into a traveling exhibit at NMAI (2012), a Folklife Festival (2013), and an exhibit at NMNH (2014), through which we seek to transform public awareness and engagement with language and knowledge loss.

Related Resources

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Joshua Bell (Principal Investigator)
Gwyneira Isaac
Michael Mason
Gabriela Perez Baez

National Museum of Natural History
Marjorie Hunt

Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Doug Herman

National Museum of the American Indian

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures