Associates Program Turns 40

Posted September 30, 2005 at 4:58pm

The Smithsonian Resident Associates Program is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, and celebrities such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Crichton, John Travolta and Kelly Preston will all be stopping by to help mark the occasion.

The Smithsonian Institute debuted Resident Associates in 1965 under the leadership of Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, as part of his overall effort to transform the Institute from a collection of musty museums into a living center for ideas. He saw Resident Associates as an outreach program that would help make the Smithsonian accessible to the Washington, D.C., community. [IMGCAP(1)]

The program’s current acting director, Barbara Tuceling, who has been with the Smithsonian for 30 years, said the Institute was an “inward looking” organization when Ripley started his long tenure there. Eulogized by Smithsonian Magazine (which he founded) as “determined to change the image of the place as a dusty attic populated solely by researchers counting beetles,” Ripley opened a number of the Smithsonian’s most popular attractions, from the National Air and Space Museum to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery.

But Resident Associates is different. “Unlike many of our associates that have property, we focus on ideas,” Tuceling said.

The program is dedicated to bringing nationally and internationally prominent presenters to Washington to share their expertise with residents. And that’s where Travolta, Preston and the others come in. For example, Travolta and Preston will share their experience with decorating their palatial Hollywood home.

Over the past four decades the program has grown substantially, but offerings have remained remarkably similar. The Smithsonian Associate, the organization’s monthly catalogue of events, ran about 16 pages in the 1970s compared with 84 pages last month. But even then it featured big names from the arts, sciences and politics, such as Arthur Miller discussing his new play or Betty Freidan and Phyllis Schlafly each speaking on the women’s movement.

“Now we’re 40 years richer in terms of topics,” Tuceling said, and recent guests include Margaret Thatcher, Cokie Roberts, Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Hawking, among others. Tuceling said her staff looks for people who are not only accomplished in their fields, but also for good teachers who can aim a lecture at a bright adult audience that does not have a specialized educational background.

Smithsonian Resident Associates is unique at the Institute because it can bring together a number of disciplines to explore a topic, Tuceling said. For example, there is a series currently in progress that celebrates the centennial of Norway’s independence, which began last Monday with a speech by Queen Sonja of Norway. It will include presentations by experts on native Norwegian Saami music, cuisine, the Nobel Institute, the polar bear and the aurora borealis.

Not every Smithsonian Associate program is glued to Washington, D.C., however. For example, the Norwegian series will travel to Seattle, Miami and Minot, N.D., all of which Tuceling said have large Norwegian communities.

In addition to talks, Smithsonian Resident Associates offers six-part courses in conjunction with Meridian House, art classes for adults and children and a “Discovery Theater” program, which brings educational theater to school children.

The Smithsonian Resident Associates is privately funded, surviving largely on membership dues and ticket prices. It also relies on volunteers, especially dedicated ones such as Bill Ulman, 62, of Avondale, Va.

Ulman and his wife, Jarla, have been Smithsonian volunteers for 25 years. He estimates he now donates 20 to 25 hours per month to the Smithsonian Resident program. Ulman specializes in being “the face of the Smithsonian” on one-day tours sponsored by the Resident Associates program, especially to New York City, which he says he has done “a couple of hundred times.”

He also works crowd control and other duties during evening events. Last Monday, for example, he and another volunteer worked security for a special reception given for Queen Sonja of Norway, “backed up by a couple of really beefy” professional guards.

Ulman said he enjoys the richness, breadth and depth the programs offer, and “if there’s food involved, we certainly enjoy it.” One of his favorite memories, he said, was of an event a couple years ago at the Russian Embassy. It was January, and people were freezing as they waited outside to pass through security at the only entrance. When everyone was inside, though, there were balalaikas playing and “enough hearty food to make people forget it was cold outside.”

Ulman said every year the Smithsonian gives a holiday party for volunteers and calculates in dollars how much they have contributed over that year. He said it made him feel good that he was helping to keep the program going.

“We get to support something we really believe in, and occasionally, we get a free meal,” he said.