The Magic of Volunteers

Our volunteers are the secret engine that drives our museums, galleries, libraries and archives. April is Volunteer Appreciation Month and Secretary Skorton takes some time to do just that in this month’s column.


The Smithsonian has an uncanny ability to inspire people of all ages, to forge lasting connections, and to foster passionate dedication. I see evidence of that inspiration daily in the more than 6,300 volunteers who put their talents to work on behalf of the Smithsonian, whether here on the National Mall, at the Zoo, in our New York City Museums, and in our research centers across the country; whether they help our visitors or assist our experts behind the scenes. While we appreciate our volunteers year round, we are particularly proud to recognize them every April during National Volunteer Month.

Sometimes our volunteers’ passion has an impact that reverberates through time, as in the case of Virginia Outwin Boochever (1920–2005), a docent who worked at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for nearly two decades. Volunteering there was a labor of love for Mrs. Boochever, and she subsequently endowed the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Through this prestigious triennial American portraiture competition and exhibition (known this year as The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today), the late Mrs. Boochever continues to inspire us and to teach us how vital art is to our shared humanity. I invite everyone to check out this year’s impressive works of talented American artists. Not only does this exhibition remind us of art’s power to move, to provoke, to challenge our preconceptions, it also reminds us of the immense power of our volunteers’ dedication to the Smithsonian.

portrait of Virginia Outwin Boochever

Virginia Outwin Boochever, longtime volunteer at the National Portrait Gallery endowed the the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a prestigious award for American artists.

Some of our volunteers are the friendly faces of our museums and galleries, engaging our visitors and helping the Smithsonian experience to be as educational, entertaining, and enjoyable as possible. They include docents who give tours like Mrs. Boochever did, education specialists at the National Zoo and the National Museum of Natural History, and visitor service volunteers at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And like our employees, much of the volunteer work is done behind the scenes and supports our programs in administrative offices, libraries, archives, laboratories, translation services, and more.

Increasingly, our volunteers work digitally, allowing us to leverage the power of crowdsourcing. For instance, the Smithsonian Transcription Center connects people around the world online to our mammoth and expanding effort to digitize our collections. These digital volunteers now equal the number of our in-person volunteers, with more than 6,300 active contributors transcribing more than 165,000 pages of historic documents and natural history specimen collection records. The Smithsonian Wikipedian Volunteer Program has helped us improve the quality and quantity of reliable Smithsonian-related information on the online encyclopedia. On March 19, the Smithsonian Institution Archives and U.S. National Archives held a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at the National Museum of the American Indian for Women’s History Month, where volunteers wrote new articles about notable minority women, some of whom worked at the Smithsonian. Finally, nearly 200 stamp enthusiasts volunteer their expertise at the National Postal Museum to help research, review, and comment on stamps in our collections before they are published on the website.

Secretary Skorton with visitors

Secretary Skorton helps a young visitor and her family plan their Smithsonian visit during a stint working at the Castle’s information desk. (Photo by David Haddock)

I have long valued the transformative power of volunteering. It is certainly an economic engine. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 62.8 million Americans volunteered 7.9 billion hours in 2014 alone, generating nearly $184 billion of value. But volunteers are much more than even those staggering numbers suggest. I have seen it in person in many settings. From the docents who make our art even more accessible to the art lovers moved by it, to the people who staff the information desks of our museums, our volunteers enhance the magic of visiting the Smithsonian.

When I arrived at the Smithsonian, I knew that I wanted to see firsthand what our volunteers experience on a day-to-day basis. So far, I have worked with our volunteers at the visitor information desks in the Castle and at the National Air and Space Museum, and I look forward to volunteering in other places throughout the Smithsonian. But what I have found has reinforced my observations that our volunteers share a common trait that authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn call, “A yearning to express our humanity by finding innovative and effective ways to give back.” Mrs. Boochever clearly shared this yearning, as do our dedicated volunteers of all ages and backgrounds.

Jack Daley and David SKorton at NASM information desk

Gen. Jack Daley, director of the National Air and Space Museum, and Secretary Skorton answer assist visitors at NASM’s information desk. (Photo by David Haddock)

Our volunteers are the secret engine that drives our museums, galleries, libraries, and archives. On behalf of the Smithsonian, I thank everyone who has lent us their time, their creativity, their expertise, and their dedication. You inspire us all.

For more information about all of our volunteer opportunities, please visit our Office of Volunteer Services website.


Posted: 31 March 2016
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.