Meet John Davis: Checking in with the Smithsonian Provost

One of the first things I wanted to do after becoming Secretary was to streamline our organizational structure to reflect that the Smithsonian should work more closely across science, art, history, culture, and education, in part by creating the position of Provost. John Davis is doing a superb job as the first incumbent in this position, leading our creative community in working across the broad spectrum of knowledge.

I asked John to share his impressions after his first five months as Provost and Under Secretary for Museums and Research.


John Davis at his desk

John Davis, Smithsonian Provost and Under Secretary for Museums and Research. (Photo by Alex di Giovanni)

David Skorton: Your distinguished background as a scholar and historian as well as an educator and administrator lends itself to the multidisciplinary nature of the Smithsonian. Tell us how you got here.

John Davis: I became an art historian and more specifically, a historian of American art and architecture somewhat accidentally. I was a pre-med physics major at Cornell University, planning on becoming a physician. Cornell required students to take courses in other disciplines outside of their major, so I signed up for a class in art history—I knew nothing about it, but it seemed pretty interesting. That course turned out to be one of those times when a great professor has a life-changing impact. She showed me a new world—a visual world—that fascinated me more than anything I had yet encountered in my short life. I turned on a dime, changed my major and went on to graduate school, where I studied art history and archaeology. I wanted to be not only a scholar, but also a teacher. I was fortunate to spend 25 years as a faculty member at Smith College in Massachusetts and I feel that, in many ways, teaching has always guided everything I do.

As I got to know the world of higher education, I also realized that there were opportunities for teachers and scholars to make a difference at an administrative level, by helping institutions fulfill their mission to educate the next generation. I eventually became a dean and associate provost at Smith, where I was excited to have the opportunity to immerse myself in the sciences again, as part of my overall responsibilities.

In 2015, I took a leave from Smith to become the executive director of global operations for the Terra Foundation for American Art in Paris. The foundation offers programs in American art and visual culture and supports exhibitions, academic programs and research in the U.S. and around the world. I have always been adamant that American art and culture need to be studied and understood in their global context, not simply within the confines of the United States, and so I learned a lot in those couple of years about examining national cultures in an international context.

What are your impressions after five months on the job?

I had been familiar with Smithsonian museums, programs, and publications for many years, so I was honored to join the excellent team of curators, scientists, staff, and volunteers who make the Institution the most significant museum, research, and educational complex in the world. Sometimes it feels like a vast landscape—it’s quite exciting, but with 30 direct reports from across the Smithsonian, it means that time is really my greatest challenge. I am helped immeasurably by the fact that the unit directors I interact with are themselves great executives and great leaders. They know their organizations. They are experts in the disciplines that are relevant to their units, so I think my role is more to facilitate their work, to advocate for their mission, to support their staff, and perhaps most important, to make connections across the Institution because I can see things from a different vantage point. Ideally, this large portfolio—which has recently grown with the addition of the Office of International Relations and the Office of Education and Access—helps give me a perspective that allows me to see points of connection and to assume a helpful position when it comes to pan-Institutional projects.

Where do you see some opportunities for pan-Institutional collaboration?

I do not think I’ve had a single conversation—among a group or one-to-one—that hasn’t offered an opportunity to talk about the idea of One Smithsonian. Everyone is thinking about collaboration. My sense is that there is a real optimism about trying to see how we can make even greater use of the riches of collections and expertise we have here at the Smithsonian. The issue is how to go about it and what role the Provost’s Office can play.

Our approach is focused on the Strategic Plan’s specific goals. For example, one of our Institution-wide goals is to drive large interdisciplinary research projects. One such project is Conservation Commons, where several different research projects around issues of global conservation are lodged in discrete units at the Smithsonian but have come together under one umbrella, and it works quite well.

Another collaboration I’m very excited about is the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. We are just beginning to launch this five-year, pan-Institutional project. Everyone will have the opportunity to participate, and we will be bringing together representatives from units in science, art, history and culture to coordinate what the Institution might do over this five-year period.

We have so many opportunities to create cross-unit collaboration. For example, we’re just beginning a very similar discussion around how the Smithsonian might better coordinate all of our work around the broad theme of music, including such areas as performance, instruments and musical culture, but also music as a field of inquiry for anthropologists working in communities or scientists studying the vocalizations of animal species. We see this as a very broad way of looking deeply at a subject to which everyone feels a connection.

Astronaut Jemison floating in space

Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, aboard the Earth-orbiting Endeavour. (Photo courtesy NASA)
Women have influenced eras, changed nations and shaped history. Yet countless of their stories are not well known, their contributions not fully integrated into our national narrative.
The Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative will amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future.

Our Office of Education and Access has now come under your purview. We reached  more than 6 million people last year with our onsite educational programs. How  can we continue to broaden our outreach and make the Smithsonian more relevant to more people?

First of all, I’d like to expand our local outreach. We have had considerable success in engaging local communities, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We’re having meetings right now with the D.C. public schools to talk about a much more purposeful integration of the D.C. schools curricula with the offerings of the various Smithsonian museums. That’s something that can easily be extended throughout the Metro region. I was very moved recently by a conversation I had with an extraordinarily generous Smithsonian donor who grew up in the Midwest in a family of modest means. Periodically, they would pile in their station wagon and drive across the country, camping along the way to save expenses, in order to visit the Smithsonian. I’d love for more families today to be able to envision the Smithsonian as a destination point for a family vacation. We may have lost a little of that sense of ownership, the idea that the Smithsonian is an important cultural lodestone for everyone, and we should ask what we can do to reinforce that.

But we have to think beyond visitors to the physical museums, especially if we are to attain our strategic goal of reaching a billion people by 2022. Our strategy is Digital First, and we are looking to bring on board a digital expert who could perform a kind of visionary coordinating role for the Institution. We’re also looking at such things as increasing our ability to create 3D imaging of iconic objects in our collections that can be shared digitally—something that could be a component of every pan-Institutional initiative. For example, from the very beginning, we are talking about a digital strategy for our Women’s History Initiative that will include social media, our very successful Learning Lab, immersive games, podcasts, wiki data projects—There are so many opportunities that we can build into all of our projects.

The Smithsonian is the custodian of some of the nation’s most important cultural and artistic treasures. In a society that sometimes seems to value only the purely practical, how can we show the intrinsic value the arts and humanities provide?

We could talk about the importance of the humanities in general for hours, but I’ll limit myself to my own particular area of expertise, art history. I think that works of art and objects of material culture—if you are properly invited to understand and appreciate them and given the tools to do so—are not simply artifacts locked in the past. They’re not dead objects in a museum with no relevance to the average student on a field trip. These objects are very much alive and can open the door to the past.

I think we have an opportunity now, because young people today have an extraordinarily well developed visual acuity. They live in a visual, sensory world that is more exciting and more saturated, more active and more available, than at any time in previous history. But I’m not certain we always have the educational tools in place to give these young learners the skills of visual literacy and visual analysis. Studying objects and works of art allows us to discern the voices and beliefs of those who created them. The way in which objects and works of art are encoded with a shared system of values is absolutely relevant today. Every object that is designed or shaped or created by a human being is a visceral connection to the cultural and belief system of that person  and his or her community. Once you realize that, and once you acquire the tools that enable you to decode those messages, you can then deploy those tools in many, many other realms. One example is visual data processing—looking at the graphical mapping of data across disciplines, including the sciences. That’s just one way that the humanities can inform other disciplines.

View of Art Room looking toward hallway with portraits on wall

The Art Room in the East Wing of the Smithsonian Institution Building, created by third Secretary Samuel P. Langley. The furnishings were specially designed by Hornblower and Marshall. Encircling the room was a plaster copy of the Parthenon frieze and carbon photographs by Adolphe Braun of Old Master portraits and paintings. (Photographer unknown, via Smithsonian Institution Archives)

I can’t help but think of the juxtaposition of art and history when I’m sitting in my own office here in the Castle. What do you think of yours?

This room is very special. In the 1890s, it became the very first Smithsonian Art Gallery. Even today, it is called the Art Room—if you send a letter to me at “Art Room, Smithsonian Institution,” I’ll get it. In fact, the desk I sit at was designed in the 1890s for this very space.

This frieze encircling the room is a copy of portions of the famed Parthenon Frieze—only a small part of it, as the real frieze is over 500 feet long. This is a copy of portions that are in the British Museum, and it was apparently considered to be an appropriate element of decoration for the art gallery in the nineteenth century.

In that spirit, I’ve asked my colleagues at the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery to select some artwork for the room that will be authentic to the room’s period. One of the artworks I’m very excited about—just in terms of my own personal journey—is in SAAM’s collection, and it is by the late nineteenth-century artist, Thomas Wilmer Dewing. When I was a 21-year-old student working on my undergraduate honor thesis, I saw a work by Dewing hanging in the office of SAAM’s director. I thought at the time, ‘What an amazing place, where you can live with wonderful works of art like this.’

I still feel that way. The Smithsonian is an amazing place.

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, John.


Posted: 12 February 2018
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.