About the Congress of Scholars


Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the following decade the research activities of the Smithsonian underwent substantial expansion. Some of this came with the establishment of new units (the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the National Air and Space Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, to name four), but there was also a significant increase in the professional staff levels of established institutes and museums. One might easily have expected that such an extension of activity would have been accompanied by an emphasis on research in the sciences; what is perhaps surprising (and gratifying) is that it was also true in history and art. Furthermore, research was given tangible support across the board through the creation of Research Awards and Scholarly Studies grants, through the establishment of Sabbatical leaves, and through the Fellowships program.

All of this amounted to a recognition (in the words of the recent Science Commission Report, words that can easily be applied to the rest of the Institution) that some units (like the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) are “engaged in research that supports the mission of the Smithsonian Institution as a whole–the increase of knowledge,” while for others (like the National Museum of Natural History) research “is inextricable from their missions and is appropriately characterized by the term unique and special contributions.”

As the scholars increased in numbers, so also did their feeling of identity and their desire to express their special needs to various levels of management. One consequence was formation of the Senate of Scientists in NMNH in 1962 and the Association of Curators in what is now the National Museum of American History in 1963. Their accomplishments, which are not to be catalogued here, were of real consequence, both in providing opportunities for communication among members and in presenting important issues to the museums and to the Institution.

By the 1990s the rudiments of interest in broader collaborations could be seen in the interactions that took place in certain pan-Institutional groups--notably the Research Policy Committee under the Assistant Secretary for Research, and the Fellowship Selection Committees--where concern was frequently expressed that support for research was waning. On another front, there was a feeling that the prestige of the Institution was being placed at risk.

After a year of discussions, the Congress of Scholars was formally established in the fall of 1994. Each research unit (museum or institute) elected a representative to the Council of the Congress, and various support activities (Library, Archives, etc.) contributed non-voting members. In a letter to the Secretary, the new organization described itself as follows:

The Smithsonian Congress of Scholars is an organization composed of representatives from all the museums and units that carry out scholarly research. Our goal is to enhance communications among scholarly staff across the Institution and to address issues of common concern to the SI research community. As such, the SCS can serve as a point of contact between you and the research staff, providing you with examples of the important scholarship being done here and serving as a sounding board so that we can continue to foster excellence in scholarship at the Smithsonian.

The Congress prefers to act in a cooperative fashion. There is clearly a need to express concerns when there is disagreement with administrative positions. With that in mind the members of the Council of the Congress, sometimes represented by the officers, has made a special effort to meet with various members of the administration to discuss issues and to determine where the SCOS can be most effective. Most often this has resulted in mutually agreeable consequences.