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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 World Cultures


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)
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 Understanding the American Experience



Fieldwork at an archaeological site in the middle of a contemporary sea lion rookery on San Miguel Island, the westernmost of the California Channel Islands.
Fieldwork at an archaeological site in the middle of a contemporary sea lion rookery on San Miguel Island, the westernmost of the California Channel Islands.

Channel Islands Bio-cultural Diversity Working Group
The Channel Islands Bio-cultural Diversity Working Group (CIBD) is a group of scholars from the Smithsonian and external agencies who are focused on understanding the interactions between biodiversity and human activities in ancient and modern times. Given global threats to biodiversity, advancing the interdisciplinary collaboration between biological, physical, and social scientists is crucial to addressing the accelerating impacts of human activities on earth’s ecosystems. The CIBD uses California’s Channel Islands as a model system for understanding biological and cultural diversity and their interactions. Often called a North American Galapagos, California’s Channel Islands offer a remarkable laboratory for investigating issues of biological and cultural diversity on multiple scales and over long time periods (i.e., millennia). During a series of roundtable discussions, meetings, and a large four-day workshop, CIBD scholars will investigate two interrelated questions of broad interdisciplinary significance: 1) What are the factors that shape biodiversity? and 2) How have humans influenced biodiversity through time and across space? Working at the interface of biological and human cultural diversity, the CIBD will integrate the Biodiversity and World Cultures Consortia by exploring the interactions between humans and the natural world.

Related Resources

  • Principal Investigator Torrey Rick discusses his path to becoming Curator of North American Archaeology and Human Environment Interaction at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History – a job that takes him to California's Channel Islands to perform field research.
  • On March 6-7, 2012, a workshop was held at University of California, Santa Barbara on the topic of Understanding human drivers of ecological and evolutionary patterns on the California islands. The event was organized by Smithsonian staff representing the National Museum of Natural History and the National Zoological Park in partnership with staff from the United States Geological Survey and the University of Maryland. Now available for download: list of workshop attendees and their affiliations, and the workshop schedule showing the talks and topics explored during the discussion.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Torben Rick (Principal Investigator)
Terry Chesser

National Museum of Natural History
Robert Fleischer
Jesus Maldonado
Katherine Ralls
Scott Sillett
National Zoological Park

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


Cross-disciplinary Educational Programming for Ai Weiwei: According to What? Exhibition
In 2012, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Freer and Sackler Galleries plan to build upon and expand their tradition of collaboration by exhibiting works by Ai Weiwei, one of the most influential figures in Chinese art since the 1990s. The Hirshhorn will be the only East Coast venue for a retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries will present a major installation by Ai Weiwei in its pavilion space.  In addition to his much-discussed role as artistic consultant to Herzog and de Meuron on the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics, Ai Weiwei has become known for his monumental sculptures that repurpose objects from everyday life in ways that offer commentaries on modernization and shifting value structures in a rapidly changing society, for his performance works that call into question his own cultural history and identity, and for his cyber-presence and activism. In all areas of his practice, Ai Weiwei directly or indirectly expands notions of art and asserts the ways in which art offers an essential means of understanding our world. Given the rich, challenging, and at times provocative nature of the artist’s work in the context of contemporary Chinese society, these paired exhibitions offer an unprecedented opportunity for the Smithsonian to develop cross-disciplinary educational programming that engages with trenchant artistic and social issues. It is due to participation in the Grand Challenges initiative that this programming can be developed in a meaningful way that can reach a broad range of audiences.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Kerry Brougher (Principal Investigator)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Carol Huh Freer and Sackler Galleries


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 Understanding the American Experience


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 Understanding the American Experience


Smithsonian and China
“Smithsonian and China” was developed as a grassroots, pan-institutional effort in response to the Valuing World Cultures Idea Fair. The goal of the project is the formation of an international dialogue that lays the groundwork for future partnerships between the Smithsonian and museum professionals in China. Two key activities of the project include: 1) a series of panel sessions, networking luncheons, and receptions at the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) on May 22–23, 2011; and 2) a visit on May 25–26, 2011, to the Smithsonian by Chinese museum professionals to meet with unit staff to discuss potential partnership projects.

Members from over 15 Smithsonian units have participated in the planning of the project, with many volunteering to speak at AAM or to meet with their Chinese counterparts when they visit the Smithsonian. Each of the four AAM panel sessions will include two speakers from the Smithsonian and two from China. There will be many scheduled opportunities for networking.  After AAM, Chinese professionals will visit the Smithsonian to further the dialogue about potential collaborations and future projects, defining needs and interests more clearly.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Daisy Wang (Principal Investigator)
Alice Tracy
Freer and Sackler Galleries



The three-cornered stone is a religious object that is associated with the cultivation of cassava/manioc, and is one of the archeological objects most associated with Taíno civilization.
The three-cornered stone is a religious object that is associated with the cultivation of cassava/manioc, and is one of the archeological objects most associated with Taíno civilization

Taíno Legacy Initiative
The Taíno Legacy Project explores the culture, history, and legacy of the Native peoples of the Caribbean islands. In particular, this project focuses on the Taíno, the inhabitants of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, who both greeted—then resisted—Columbus and his men during the first decades of Spanish colonization in the Americas.

This project tells the story of one of the most important cultural encounters in world history. It provides perspectives on Taíno civilization prior to European contact using the Smithsonian’s first-rate (yet rarely studied or displayed) archeological collections, while it demonstrates the enduring Taíno presence on the islands—from domestic architecture, agriculture, and spirituality to art, language, and biology.

This project is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Latino Center, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. An exhibition on Taíno legacy is planned for 2014 in the George Gustav Heye Center/National Museum of the American Indian. A public program series initiated in 2011 will continue through 2015, with plans for a traveling exhibition to be evaluated in the future.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Ranald Woodaman (Principal Investigator)

Smithsonian Latino Center
Jose Barreiro
Jorge Estevez
Cynthia Vidaurri

National Museum of the American Indian
Mary Jo Arnoldi

National Museum of Natural History
Frederica Adelman Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

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 Understanding the American Experience



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 Understanding the American Experience



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 Understanding the American Experience



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 Understanding the American Experience