Join us for the first in series of online lectures hosted by the Centre for Design History, University of Brighton. Organised by Dr Claire Wintle (University of Brighton), Dr Linda Sandino (Victoria and Albert Museum), and Andrea Potts (University of Brighton).

Museum Memories: How Museums Live, Change, and Grow

Pamela M. Henson  (Institutional Historian, Smithsonian Institution)

Tuesday 14 June 2022
14:00-15.00 BST


Pamela Henson Interviewing Horton H. Hobbs III at the Natural History Museum

The Smithsonian’s Institutional Oral History Program was begun in 1973 by Smithsonian Secretary Dillon Ripley.  Many Smithsonian staff work here their entire careers – a unique opportunity to capture organizational history from the Smithsonian community. The first interviewee, Secretary Emeritus Charles Abbot, astrophysicist, worked at Smithsonian for 78 years.

Initially, the project focused on elites (aka white men who were top managers and/or researchers) but evolved to record stories of diverse staff in an array of jobs. Interviews document changing gender and race relations, expeditions and acquisitions, collecting and exhibit strategies, successes, failures, and lessons learned.

In the 1980s we experimented with video, capturing Smithsonian researchers in the tropics, remote observatories, and collection areas. Historians of technology used video to document collections by filming craftsmen at work before their tools were acquired. SEEING collectors handle their objects is very informative.

We went digital in the 1990s, converted all analog interviews, and used online portals to record memories during the Covid-19 pandemic.  We just launched an SI 175th staff project that will be in-person and online interviews and aimed at all staff, volunteers, alumni, etc. This is a test case for a USA-wide project in 2026 for the US 250 anniversary.

Pamela Henson interviewing Oscar Dean Kidd at the Smithsonian field station in Panama

Pamela Henson is the Historian for the history of the Smithsonian in Smithsonian Archives and Libraries. With a history Ph.D., she directs the oral history project. She taught oral history at American University for many years. Research interests include history of the Smithsonian, museums, natural history, minority and women’s history, and use of visual materials and oral history.

Coming up:

Inkeri Hakamies, University of Helsinki, Finland – ‘Studying Finnish Museum Stories’ – Wednesday 29 June, 16:00-17:00 BST

Priyanka Seshadri, Independent Archivist, Delhi, India – ‘Oral Histories in Indian Museums’ – Monday 4 July, 16:00-17:00 BST