Museum links arms with Smithsonian
By Eric Blaisdell
STAFF WRITER | September 03,2014
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
A grass skirt from the 1838-1842 Wilkins Expedition to the South Pacific, on which a Norwich University graduate was ship's commander, is on display Tuesday at the Sullivan Museum and History Center at Norwich University in Northfield.
NORTHFIELD — The Sullivan Museum and History Center at Norwich University soon will be bringing in national treasures and sharing its own story across the country thanks to a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution.
The school celebrated the affiliation at a ceremony Tuesday attended by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The Sullivan is the only Smithsonian-affiliated museum in Vermont.
Norwich President Richard Schneider said Tuesday was a “very special day in our history as a university,” calling the affiliation the gold standard for museums.
He said the museum was founded in 1902 and has collected 11,000 items from the years between 1819, when the school was founded in Norwich, to the present day.
Schneider said Norwich has strong ties to the Smithsonian — stronger than he realized. He said George Colvocoresses, a Norwich alumnus, was part of the Wilkes Expedition that explored the West Coast of the United States from 1838 to 1842. Schneider said artifacts that native people gave the expedition became the foundation for the National Museum of Natural History.
Some of those items, including a grass skirt, war clubs and a nose flute, are on display at the Sullivan.
Harold Closter, the director of Smithsonian affiliations, said it made perfect sense for the Smithsonian and the Sullivan to join forces. Besides Colvocoresses, Closter said, the Smithsonian has other ties to the state. He said U.S. Rep. George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont native, helped draft the legislation in 1846 that brought the Smithsonian into existence.
Closter said the Smithsonian has more than 137 million items but can display only 3 percent to 5 percent of them at any given time. Many items in the collection have Vermont ties, he said.
One is an automobile called “The Vermont” that was owned by Burlington resident Horatio Nelson Jackson. Closter said that automobile in 1903 became the first to travel across the United States. He also mentioned a DC-7 the Smithsonian has that is named “Flagship Vermont.” Closter said it was the first commercial airline to offer nonstop transcontinental service in both directions.
The Smithsonian and Norwich both have military history collections. Some notable items from the Sullivan include a 19th-century Gatling gun, a phone taken from Benito Mussolini’s office and a piece of Adolf Hitler’s desk.
Closter said the collections are important, but that what’s more important is what’s done with them.
“Museums like the Sullivan Museum and History Center and the Smithsonian have a great responsibility and opportunity to show us the world before it became virtual to remind us how this country was built and to instill in everyone, especially the young, the spirit of duty and service that is so necessary to keep our country free and successful,” Closter said.
Leahy has been on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents since 2001. He said he was proud of what the Sullivan is doing.
“Acceptance into the Smithsonian affiliates program is a great credit to the Sullivan Museum,” he said.
Leahy said he drives his staff “nuts” when he leaves to go check out some of the items in the back rooms of the Smithsonian and loses track of time. He said someone usually has to come down and drag him out. Leahy also said he gets terribly frustrated by those today who don’t understand or know history and say things such as, “Where was the Vietnam War? I don’t know Europe that well.”
He said the United States has plenty to be proud of, as well as things that it might not be proud of but still needs to acknowledge.
“In these kind of museums, in the Smithsonian, in the Sullivan Museum, we can do that,” he said. “Whoever is standing here 100 years from now will be talking about, ‘Weren’t they smart to do this?’”
Robert Guptill is the vice president of museum associates at the Sullivan. He said the associates, in place since 2006, help fund the museum and acquire artifacts.
One of the programs the associates put on is called Lunch and Learn, in which experts come in three or four times a year and give a presentation about the items currently being displayed. Now that the museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian, he said, it will be able to bring in top-notch nationally recognized experts for those presentations.
Even though the Sullivan Museum and the Smithsonian are now partners, Guptill still had a warning for the Smithsonian about acquiring new items.
“We’re very aggressive in what we acquire,” Guptill said jokingly. “I don’t know how the Smithsonian gets all of its acquisitions, but I would just caution you about bidding against us because we are very aggressive and we very rarely lose, and were you to be successful in winning, you’re going to pay very dearly for what you get.”