Publication Date

March 1, 1999

Perspectives Section


Michael Heyman, who headed the Smithsonian Institution for five years, has announced that he plans to retire at the end of 1999. The institution's board of regents has named a search committee to look for his successor.

Heyman, who had been a chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and a counselor for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, was selected in 1994 from the ranks of the Smithsonian's board of regents and was the first nonscientist to serve as the institution's secretary.

During Heyman's term, the Smithsonian celebrated its 150th anniversary with a traveling exhibit that reached nearly three million people, strengthened its fundraising activities, established a Latino center, and began an affiliates program to share the national collections with museums around the country.

In a statement circulated to the Smithsonian community, Heyman declared that he intends to have a very active final year, focusing on four chief items: ensuring that the National Museum of the American Indian opens on the Mall before 2003; developing the national capital campaign to raise more resources from the private sector than the institution had in the past; bringing to fruition the plan to acquire an additional facility for the National Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Archives of American Art, all of which are currently located in the Patent Office Building; and establishing a new organization (with its own chief operating officer and board of directors) within the Smithsonian to operate its business activities.

Heyman said that he was stepping down with "regret, of course, but also with pleasant anticipation. I regret departing from both the institution, which is so important to our national life, and from those who are responsible for what it does. But I look forward to returning home to California in my 70th year and reestablishing my ties with the University of California and the San Francisco Bay area."

Heyman's Legacy

Edward Linenthal (University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh), Perspectives contributing editor for Exhibitions and Interpretive Programs, and Lonnie Bunch of the National Museum of American History contributed the following:

Michael Heyman became the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution during tumultuous times, as the culture wars spread to the museums on the National Mall, most visibly in the struggles surrounding the interpretation of Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum, and a recent, well-received exhibition on sweatshops at the National Museum of American History. Secretary Heyman’s decision to radically scale back the Enola Gay exhibit was defended by many as a logical decision in light of the powerful criticism from some in Congress and in veterans organizations, while it was attacked by others as a failure of nerve to defend the intellectual prerogatives of the Smithsonian. For some, this was a failure that would undermine the work and integrity of cultural institutions nationally.

Yet, under Heyman's leadership in these difficult times, the Smithsonian matured in important ways. It learned the limits of veneration. It slowly came to understand the obligation to articulate more effectively its vision, role, and exhibition ideas; the importance of being more politically savvy by building political alliances on Capitol Hill and outside the beltway; the need to engage creatively with, and manage, the media; and (one hopes), the centrality of research, scholarship, and interpretation in both the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

The legacy of Heyman's tenure as secretary is unclear. His vision and plans for the institution became clouded and delayed by the whirlwind of controversy around the Enola Gay exhibition. But Heyman’s belief in the untapped potential of the Smithsonian allowed him to move this aging eminence in new and creative directions that may yet help this 19th-century institution face the challenges and possibilities of the next century.

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