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Skorton Meets the Press: Outreach, Public Input, “Trade Secrets” UPDATED

In his cautious comments yesterday during an hour-long appearance at the National Press Club, Washington, David Skorton, the Smithsonian Institution’s new secretary, seemed to be guided by his expressed belief that “the first thing in nonprofit leadership is to do no harm…Basically, my first duty is to listen to the people on the ground.”

Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton addressing the National Press Club yesterday

Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton, addressing the National Press Club yesterday

He “did no harm” by uncontroversially endorsing the value of the arts and humanities, the Smithsonian’s need for outreach and public input, and the importance of generous federal funding and philanthropic support. He emphatically declared: “I hope I never see the day or seriously contemplate a day when we will charge admission. The Smithsonian’s financial health is robust.”

The Q&A period elicited comments on more problematic issues: Skorton indicated that he is in the process of weighing concerns expressed by critics of the National Museum of the American Indian that it is “largely a PR exercise for individual tribes, rather than a historical and cultural survey” (in the words of the questioner). My Wall Street Journal commentaries on the NMAI’s provocative displays and philosophy are here and here.

Skorton said he is awaiting a Congressional response to his proposed “major change to the [Smithsonian’s] upper administration…to foster cross-talk and collaboration among all of the units [and] to have them in one hierarchy.” He said he had been “surprised, coming into the institution, to find that the science units were sequestered under one administrative hierarchy and the non-science units were sequestered under another. I’m not aware of any other major academic institution that works that way. ”

Skorton came to the Smithsonian five months ago from the presidency of Cornell University (my alma mater, where I admired his accomplishments, if not his flute-playing).

In fielding a few of the questions, he seemed to missed the import of what was asked. He addressed the query about whether he had “any thought of putting new buildings in other parts of the United States, instead of the Washington or Virginia area,” by talking about “broadening our reach in the way of having an overseas presence.”

He said that “the reason we’re considering [a Smithsonian outpost in] London is that the opportunity came to us. We’re still thinking about it. No decisions have been made….There are no plans to add other new museums owned by the Smithsonian and run by it elsewhere, but there’s a very sincere desire to broaden our reach.”

Unnecessarily waving a red flag at the investigative journalists in attendance (first among equals being Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, recently lionized in the movie “Spotlight” for his prior work at the Boston Globe), Skorton declared that “other things I plan to do are closely held trade secrets and I’m not going to share them with you.” This may have been an attempt at humor, but it fell flat.

Exercising proper journalistic detachment, Baron (on the right, below) was the only one seated onstage who appeared not to applaud at the end of Skorton’s presentation:

SkorBaron

UPDATE: Baron replied to my tweet to say that he did applaud. That’s not apparent on the video of the presentation (at 1:00:28), but I’ll take his word for it!

Reporters (and members of the public) will get another chance to grill the new secretary on Friday, 2-3 p.m., at the National Museum of American History, after he is interviewed by David Rubenstein, philanthropist and co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group (not to mention a member of the Smithsonian’s board). You can also email questions to Skorton for that forum at: comments@si.edu.

Cosby show, anyone?

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