By G. Wayne Clough
Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Every great institution is built upon a bedrock foundation of timeless values that shape its culture and identity. The Smithsonian has always embraced a passion for learning. We are fortunate to have had a founder, James Smithson, and many other early champions who were deeply committed to acquiring knowledge through research. Mr. Smithson was a scientist of the Enlightenment period who chose to work in the new field of chemistry. One of his other passions was mineralogy—not only discovering new minerals but determining practical uses for them. Mr. Smithson prided himself on the work he did in the field to identify minerals. His work was highly regarded by his peers, and at a young age he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society of London. It was such a notable distinction that only one American of the time was so honored—Benjamin Franklin. After Smithson’s death, one of his mineral discoveries, zinc carbonate, was dubbed “smithsonite” in honor of his lasting contributions to the discipline.
The Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, a prominent scientist and engineer himself, continued the legacy of scholarly research. The subsequent secretaries in the Smithsonian’s formative years shared similar science and engineering backgrounds and reinforced the ethic of research and scholarship initiated by James Smithson and Joseph Henry. For 166 years, research has remained one of the Smithsonian’s core values essential to the Institution in all areas: science, art, history and culture. Its importance is permanently enshrined in the zinc statue Columbia Protecting Science and Industry. The statue is being cleaned now instead of standing at its usual spot atop the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building, but it still symbolizes the important contributions of the sciences and arts and pays tribute to the benefactor who made it all possible.
Tragically, most of Mr. Smithson’s comprehensive mineralogical field journals were lost in a fire after they had been transferred to the Smithsonian, but now, as then, field books are critical to what we do. They reflect the work of hundreds of Smithsonian scientists and scholars who have conducted comprehensive research at sites all over the world. Simply stated, detailed research requires going to the source, no matter the availability of resources online or through technology. You cannot understand the “why” of a botanical species if you do not know the “what” of its ecological setting. You cannot explain how a civilization created a Deer Stone monument in Mongolia if you do not visit the region where it was made. And you cannot understand how the Inka could possibly build a remarkable civilization in less than 200 years, only to see it disappear, except by doing the field research needed to understand the world of that time.
Smithsonian field books document the evidence-gathering phase of research. They capture the thoughts of scientists and scholars as they formulate hypotheses that will subsequently be tested by other scientists and scholars. They form the basis for conclusions, publications and educational materials that derive from the work of individuals. Collectively they represent the Smithsonian's institutional memory of thousands of expeditions and investigations.
I was fortunate to have served as a faculty member at some of the most respected research universities in our country, and one of my joys was working on exciting research with my 34 PhD students. Field work has always been a particularly satisfying endeavor for me and was an important component in the investigations I undertook on landslides and earthquakes, here in this country and around the world. As Secretary of today's sprawling Smithsonian, my own
research interests have necessarily taken
a back seat to the needs of the Institution at large, but I still have the opportunity to live vicariously through the work of my talented Smithsonian colleagues. From time to time I have ventured back into to the field to see their work in action in places like Peru, Chile, and Kenya. Observing these talented experts in their element truly brings their impressive and important research to life. In each case I have documented these excursions with travel journals so I can share the remarkable efforts of our scientists and scholars. They are available for people to see at the Smithsonian Magazine website. It is important for everyone to see us in action and understand how Smithsonian research is making a difference, not just in Washington DC, but all over the nation and throughout the world.
My travel journals are the closest thing to a field book I do today. Writing these journals requires extensive preparation and delving into the subject matter before I arrive at a site. Fully understanding the location puts the research into context and enables a deeper understanding, both for me and for readers of the journal. When I visit sites like the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming, as I did with NaturalHistory scientist Scott Wing, the effort pays off. While there, Scott arranged for me to crack open a shale fragment exposing a fossil from 55 million years ago that documents a time when the earth was much hotter than it is today. By applying the results of field work about this epoch, we can unravel the mystery of modern climate change and better understand the causes of rising temperatures and its potential effects on the planet. Scott’s field books document 15 years of remarkable discoveries he and his colleagues made in the Big Basin. These detailed logs explain what triggered a massive release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. His field books are invaluable research tools that will continue to serve as foundations upon which other scientists can build, sparking new insights into our planet’s climate.
Like our collections, field books are treasures of knowledge and information, but they also serve to document in real time how the scientific method is used to unlock the mysteries of our world. Previously, field journals have only been accessible to a select few. Now, thanks to my talented colleagues who have begun digitizing our field books, we can share these valuable resources with everyone. The Smithsonian is undergoing a renaissance, utilizing the modern tools of technology to fortify our traditional strength of scholarly research—and enhance the learning for everyone. It is an exciting new day for this venerable Institution.