The Smithsonian Strengthens Ties with the U.S. State Department

A formal agreement between the two organizations will deepen their longstanding partnership.

Two men in suits shake hands with American flag in background
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) and Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch (left). Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

The reach of the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, research and education complex, is about to get even larger.

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For years the institution has collaborated with the U.S. Department of State on initiatives relating to culture, art, science and education. Now, that relationship is being formalized. Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, and Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of the state, earlier this month signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) expanding the collaboration between their respective organizations.

“Ultimately, we’re here today because the Smithsonian can better serve the public, whether in D.C. or the United States or globally, when we don’t do it alone,” said Bunch at the agreement’s signing on Dec. 19. The organizations, which began discussing how to deepen their partnerships nearly a year ago, will focus their collaboration in the areas of education, the environment and cultural preservation.

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One of their new initiatives will consist of Cultural Heritage Forward, an international exchange program that will bring together experts from museums, government and community organizations to discuss how to go about preserving cultural heritage.

The Department of State is also opening up its Embassy Science Fellows program to scientists from the Smithsonian, who will be able to travel abroad to U.S. embassies and participate in dialogues on local and regional challenges.

Blinken additionally announced plans for his department to support a pilot program in Mexico that will help artisans preserve traditional art forms like weaving and metalworking. And the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations, which since 2009 has had a senior diplomatic advisor help the institution with its work abroad, will create a new position for another State Department detailee focused on science, technology and environmental protections.

The relationship between the Smithsonian and the federal government

Although it does not exercise regulatory powers and is not considered an executive branch or agency, the Smithsonian, which was established by Congress in 1846, has long been closely connected to the U.S. government. It collaborates with various federal departments—its National Museum of Natural History, for example, recently signed a separate MOU with the U.S. Department of Agriculture detailing plans to collaborate on awareness and research regarding the protection of U.S. plants from invasive species.

Since 2013, the institution has collaborated with the Department of State by hosting visiting Fulbright scholars from more than 30 countries. The two organizations have also worked together on virtual sessions between high school classes in the U.S. and France for the past three years, with nearly 2,000 students connected by a partnership between the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations and the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

More recently, their collaboration has focused on the safeguarding of Ukrainian cultural heritage. Working alongside the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the public diplomacy section at Embassy Kyiv, the Smithsonian has helped package and relocate collections for Ukrainian performances and invested in cultural exchange programs. Other instances of their partnership abroad include supporting cultural heritage professionals in Iraq and exchange programs focused on African and American museological practices.

“In the years to come, the department and the Smithsonian will continue working together and, with our colleagues across the globe, grow these programs, expand other exchanges and develop new partnerships,” remarked Blinken at the MOU signing. “I’m convinced that for most problems we’re trying to solve, somewhere, someone in the world has probably found an answer. But if we can’t share it, if we can’t know it, then we’re all fated to reinvent the wheel.”

The Smithsonian Strengthens Ties with the U.S. State Department