In 1996, the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest combined museum and research complex, celebrated its 150th anniversary with a traveling exhibit that brought a vision of the museum to the towns and cities of America.
At every stop on the tour, including Los Angeles, families crowded in to see such draws as Judy Garland's ruby slippers, Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat and the Apollo 14 lunar mission command module. The lesson for Smithsonian officials was that, if they delivered the goods, people would come. Surely they had the goods. The Smithsonian's treasure chests in and near Washington contain more than 140 million artifacts, with fewer than 1% on view at any one time.
More of these objects and documents ought to be seen, and that is the aim of the Smithsonian Affiliation Program. Through it, nonprofit cultural and educational institutions can qualify for long-term loans from this vast warehouse of Americana, as well as for educational programs and Smithsonian outreach programs.
So far nearly 40 museums and educational institutions have taken advantage of the program, which was inaugurated in September 1996. In San Jose, for instance, a Mexican heritage museum, having planned a show on Cesar Chavez, the Chicano union leader, asked the Smithsonian for help. Among the objects sent West were Chavez's jacket, the hoe he used to symbolize the plight of the farm workers and the United Farm Worker flag that Chavez carried during his struggle for labor rights.