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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Memorandum of Understanding Signing Ceremony with the Smithsonian Institution

UNDER SECRETARY ALLEN:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It is so nice to look out and see so many friends and partners.  We’re so pleased that you’re all here with us today.  Thank you to Secretary Blinken and Secretary Bunch for honoring this occasion with your presence here. 

We’re so pleased.  This MOU signing is a bit of a full-circle moment here, almost a year after these secretaries spoke privately about ways in which deepen our already existing partnerships, so we’re so pleased to be here today.  Second time’s a charm.  (Laughter.)

I also want to recognize the incredible collaboration of Smithsonian Director of International Relations Aviva Rosenthal and the whole Smithsonian team.  (Applause.)  And our partners here at the State Department, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, led by Assistant Secretary Lee Satterfield – (applause) – and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs led by Acting Assistant Secretary J.R. Littlejohn.  (Applause.)

And I would be remiss not to say that our longstanding relationship includes having a senior diplomatic adviser work in the Smithsonian’s office of international relations.  That’s been since 2009, so thank you to all the current and former advisers from the State Department that have worked in partnership with our Smithsonian partners.  We’re so grateful to have your critical connective tissue working day-to-day to make all of this good work come to life.

I will be quick, but I will just say that I am so energized that today’s MOU will further formalize and advance so much of the terrific, consequential work that’s already been happening in support of our foreign policy priorities, in particular three areas – education, the environment, and cultural preservation.  So, let me tell you just a little bit about that.

First, on education, we are doing great things together.  For example, since 2013, more than 55 Fulbright visiting scholars from more than 30 countries have been hosted by the Smithsonian.  And this year alone, the Smithsonian hosted 123 BridgeUSA J-1 Visa exchange visitors, which is one of our most popular and accessible work-and-study-based exchange programs we have.

Another example, our embassy public affairs section in Embassy Paris has been working with the Smithsonian for the past several years on an in-depth series of virtual sessions between U.S. and French high school classes.  That series now focuses on social and climate justice through the lens of food and nutritional security.  It explores important topics such as diversity, equity, and inclusion for sustainable communities.  And this fall, Smithsonian announced additional training partnerships with foreign governments related to museum management, loans and exchange, and research projects.

On the environment, we are advancing our climate priorities together.  For example, in Panama, our public diplomacy section leads a whole-of-mission effort to partner with the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute.  I might want a job there after this one.  (Laughter.) 

And of course, on cultural heritage, preserving culture, art, and history is critical – particularly in places of crisis, a topic we had a chance to talk a little bit about before this signing.  Smithsonian has worked very closely with our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the public diplomacy section at Embassy Kyiv in Ukraine in particular, to safeguard Ukrainian cultural heritage.  We’re very honored to have the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States here today.  Thank you for being here.  (Applause.)

Our teams are working together to help package and relocate valuable collections to facilitate Ukrainian performances at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and to invest in exchange programs that support cultural artistry and cultural preservation.  As I was proud to say at an event during UNGA week in New York about our shared efforts to preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage, it is critical for Ukraine’s identity and democracy, and cultural policy is security policy. 

In that vein, I will just say that not only am I energized by, deeply proud of, and grateful for the work that Smithsonian and the State Department are doing together through this partnership to promote peace, to promote stability, and to promote our common humanity. 

Now, it is my great honor to introduce to you Lonnie Bunch, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.  As an educator, historian, and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and now as a leader of the Smithsonian, Secretary Bunch has helped the world more clearly understand our nation and our shared history.  His leadership as secretary and belief in the power of cultural diplomacy has been instrumental in bolstering our work here at the State Department, and we are so proud to have him as a partner.  So please welcome Secretary Lonnie Bunch.   (Applause.) 

MR BUNCH:  Thank you, Under Secretary Allen.  And I don’t have much power, but I can get you a job, so – (laughter).   I want to thank you all for attending.  What a tremendous occasion to be here in the Benjamin Franklin Room to formally renew the working relationship between the Smithsonian and the State Department.  And to me it’s also a chance to see Secretary Blinken once again, which is always a great pleasure.  And I want to say how reassuring it is to know that we can rely on your thoughtful, measured diplomacy to guide us through these especially turbulent times, so we’re in your debt.  Thank you so much. 

In some ways, people-to-people diplomacy is a powerful implement in the nation’s domestic toolkit.  But whether it is in culture, art, science, or education, it is collaboration that makes us more effective.  For instance, you take the universal language of music.  With support from the State Department, our Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra has played all over the world: from Paris, to Nairobi, to the Pyramids of Giza.  And since 1967, we’ve brought music from the world around the globe to the Smithsonian, to the National Mall, as part of the Folklife Festival.  And Secretary, I know – Mr. Secretary, I know how important it is and relevant music diplomacy is to you, especially because I know you play a mean guitar.  (Laughter.)

And I think that during the past few years though we’ve been hard at work on diverse series of projects in collaboration with our colleagues here in the State Department.  For example, the International Visitors Leadership Program, a signature initiative of the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that fosters intercultural exchange and promotion of American values around the world.  Over the past two years, more than 900 participants from 145 nations visit the Smithsonian, experiencing our museums, our research, and working with our colleagues. 

And when the war in Ukraine broke out, the Smithsonian, under the leadership of people like Richard Kurin, immediately became involved.  Following the leadership of President Biden and Secretary Blinken, we supported the Ukrainian people in a myriad of ways.  It began with our Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, who work with the State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations as part of the Conflict Observatory, monitoring damage to cultural sites.  We’ve also worked to coordinate rapid response advising and logistical support to heritage professionals on the ground.  And when four Ukrainian Fulbright scholars were stranded in the United States, we moved into action.  The Smithsonian worked with the Fulbright office to offer them fully-funded academic appointments, so they can continue their scholarship here in Washington.

Working with communities and governments around the world, we’ve thought about how does the Smithsonian lead in repatriation and shared stewardships of objects.  And in fact, we’ve realized that the key to the success for the Smithsonian is to be a collaborator.  Our efforts have long been led by the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History.  Those efforts, though, have been expanded with our new ethical returns policy and our shared stewardship policy.  This is a renewed commitment to collaboration internationally, to make sure the Smithsonian has the highest moral standards and can make sure that the work we do matters and makes everybody better.

In some ways, international cooperation and the State Department’s expertise were vital in our efforts to tell the unvarnished truth about the transatlantic slave trade.  The National Museum of African American History and Culture, a place I kind of care about, we really created a collaborative Slave Wrecks Project that helped recover remnants of a slave ship off the coast of Cape Town.  But it’s also allowed us to bring a human face to an abstract tragedy.  And the international work that we’ve done with the Slave Wrecks Project has stretched from Saint Croix to Senegal, from Brazil to Mozambique.  The project embodies what the Smithsonian is all about: using scholarship, collaboration, international reach, and education to better understand our history and share that knowledge for the good of the world.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the Office of International Relations are working with cultural heritage practitioners representing eight African countries, funded by the Cultural Heritage Center.  This exchange program is helping to develop new approaches that prioritize African knowledge in everything from collections management to conservation to interpretation.

And during the past eight years, our partnership with State to support cultural heritage professionals in Iraq has built trust and capacity.  We’ve worked with Iraqi colleagues to deliver workshops in Erbil, and assist salvage and recovery work at the archaeological site of Nimrod. 

Thanks to State Department funding, we’re collaborating with the Iraqi museum in Baghdad, creating an online exhibition that tells the history and the culture – that will be available globally. 

I’ve been keenly interested in how this agreement has the potential to booster our educational efforts.  If past initiatives are any indication, it will enable us to broaden our reach and have tremendous impact.  Our Office of International Relations and the Smithsonian’s Science Education Center work with the U.S. Embassy in Paris to connect nearly 2,000 students in France and the French overseas territories and the United States.  Using two Smithsonian curriculum guides about sustainable communities and biodiversity, students design their own community actions in response to the program.  Efforts like this are crucial, because they remind us that there is nothing more powerful than a younger generation seizing leadership in issues that are crucially important.  And I’m thrilled to really say this program is now in its third year.

But working with the State Department has also expanded the reach of our scientific research – particularly important as we strive to meet the rising challenges of climate change and global biodiversity loss.  Smithsonian leadership and scientists like our own Dr. Ellen Stofan – where are you, Ellen?  There you are.  They’ve joined with U.S. delegations at major global convening, including most recently COP28 in Dubai. 

It’s crucially important for us to think about how none of these accomplishments, none of these efforts would have been possible without the State Department’s leadership and excellent working relationships strengthened by the work of Aviva Rosenthal and her talented team in the Office of International Affairs. 

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.  The Smithsonian is this amazing complex of education, of museums, of research dedicated to the increase in diffusion of knowledge.  But unleashing that full potential to do good in the world requires that we work with universities, nonprofits, communities, and governments.  And the State Department has made all of that possible. 

So I am excited to see the impact this collaboration will have on the world, and I’m grateful to Secretary Blinken and the State Department as important partners in this endeavor.  And now it is my pleasure to welcome my friend, the U.S. Secretary of State, Tony Blinken.  (Applause.) 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you, everyone.  And as Under Secretary Allen said, it’s so wonderful to see everyone together in this room – slightly delayed, but we’re here.  And welcome to the State Department; welcome to the Benjamin Franklin Room.  You can see Franklin looking down upon us – always an inspiration.  America’s first diplomat – signed and negotiated our first treaty, charted the Gulf Stream, pioneered electricity, gave us our ethos of self-government.  Virtually none of these things did he do while sober.  (Laughter.)  So, I find him to be a genuine inspiration every day in our activities.  (Laughter.) 

Secretary Bunch – Lonnie – thank you.  Thank you not just for today, but thank you for truly visionary leadership of one of our national treasures, the Smithsonian, and all you’ve done throughout a remarkable career to make our public memory more inclusive.  It’s hard to think of anyone who already has the extraordinary lasting legacy that Lonnie has produced.  We feel it and live it every single day, those of us who are fortunate enough to live in this community, but Americans from across the country have the benefit of it when they travel here.  It’s just an incredibly powerful thing.

And Liz, to you, to your incredible team in public diplomacy, many joining us from across the department today, thank you for the work that’s brought us here to this day.  At home and abroad, this team is leading extraordinary work to help people bridge divides, to try to help each person see the world through someone else’s eyes, and fundamentally, to recognize our common humanity. 

One of the things that I see again and again, around the world, is that the single biggest poison that we have to deal with is dehumanization.  When that happens, it’s very, very difficult to make progress on any of the things we care about.  The work of the Smithsonian, the work of the State Department and our Public Diplomacy team, our ECA team led by the remarkable Lee Satterfield.  It’s all about fundamentally humanizing each other, finding, sharing our common humanity.  And when you do that, you’ve got something to build on.  You can have a conversation.  You can engage across borders, across barriers of geography, language, culture, heritage.  That’s why this is so important, and it’s more important than it’s ever been in the times that we’re living. 

To our other friends and colleagues here, the Smithsonian regents who are with us today, the museum staff, philanthropists – we’re so grateful for everything that you do – scholars, members of the diplomatic corps:  Thank you for the work that you’re doing to illuminate our past and, in so doing, brighten our future. 

If you go back to the earliest days of our nation and actually to Ben Franklin, scientific exchanges have shaped and strengthened our country.  Franklin’s portrait reminds us that this is part and parcel of our diplomacy.  He was originally, of course, an inventor who was amazed by the work of scientists who were studying electricity in Europe, and he used their findings to help harness the power that we all use today. 

Eight decades later, as the United States was celebrating its 50 anniversary, an English chemist – James Smithson – was inspired by all that our young nation represented.  He wrote in his will that he would leave his savings to the American Government to create “an establishment,” and I quote, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” across humanity.

Smithson believed that everything in life should be examined – minerals found deep in the Earth; the chemistry of volcanoes – something very relevant today, if you’re in Iceland; snake venom; he even tried to find the scientifically optimal method of brewing a cup of coffee.  And by the way, Lonnie, I need to go to the Smithsonian to see if the papers are there on that, because I’d really benefit from that every single day too.  (Laughter.) 

Smithson also believed that every scientific discovery, no matter how small, was worth sharing, because he knew that one person’s observation could lead to another’s revelation and benefit people around the world.  We were talking about this earlier.  Another thing that struck me in working in this area for 30 years now is I’m convinced for most problems that 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 reinventing the wheel.  The power of these connections is something that I’ve seen time and time again.

So, this was the fundamental idea at the heart of the organization that he imagined and named the Smithsonian Institution.  So here we are nearly 200 years later, and the United States has grown his legacy of scientific exchange exponentially and expanded it to include countless other fields: art, history, cultural heritage, education.  Today – and I see this every day – international collaboration is more important than it’s ever been, because the biggest challenges of our era, the challenges that Americans have to face – from the warming of our planet to democratic backsliding – they don’t stop at anyone’s national borders.  But time and again, I’ve also seen that for nearly any given problem, as I’ve said, somewhere, someone has the beginnings – at least, of a solution. 

By bringing together experts, scientists, historians, educators, artists, researchers from all across the globe, we’re swapping solutions, we’re developing new ones, and we share what we learn with people around the world.  That’s why for years the State Department and the Smithsonian have joined forces to try to facilitate exactly these kinds of exchanges.  It’s why we also work together to try to support the next generation of experts by creating school curriculums, developing spaces in our embassies where young people can learn new skills and study English – which, by the way, is probably our most powerful export.

Today, we get to celebrate something.  We celebrate the next step in a partnership with the memorandum of understanding that Lonnie and I will sign in a few minutes that sets out our common vision for the next five years.  And we start with four new initiatives that I just want to briefly touch on.

First, the State Department is opening up its Embassy Science Fellows program to Smithsonian scientists, so that they can travel the world, share their expertise – whether they’re helping to protect marine ecosystems or training local officials how to prevent disease outbreaks.  And I want to pause here for a second, because there’s something else that’s very powerful in what the Smithsonian does as it’s engaging around the world.  It’s sharing knowledge.  It’s transferring knowledge.  It’s transferring skills.  And this becomes an incredibly powerful self-fulfilling prophecy for countries that benefit from its engagement, as they are then able to develop themselves the next generation of experts in whatever the particular field is.  That dynamic that the Smithsonian is at the heart of is one of the best things that we do around the world.

Second, we are strengthening our ties – already strong – with the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations by, as you heard, creating a new position for a State Department detailee.  So, Aviva, stay tuned.  We’re – have someone heading your way.  For years, we’ve had a State liaison who’s advised the Smithsonian on its work abroad; we’re delighted that Natalie Brown, our former ambassador to Uganda, has taken on this role.  Now we’re building out that team by bringing on a second diplomat, Jennifer Harris Baxter, who will work with Natalie and help facilitate our collaboration on science, on technology, environmental protection, and public health.

Third, we recently began a project in Mexico to preserve traditional art forms like weaving and metalworking.  Along with our local partners, we’ll help artisans market their products and make a sustainable living.  That way, they can keep practicing their craft, keeping this culture alive, bringing it into a new century.  And we’ll use what we learn in Mexico to continue similar efforts around the world.

Finally, we’re launching a new international exchange program called Cultural Heritage Forward.  This initiative will bring together experts from museums, from governments, from cultural organizations, and community groups who are building more inclusive museums.  Whether they’re helping to return artifacts to their rightful owners under international agreements or working to accessibly provide information about their museums’ collections, these practitioners will be able to share their best practices for preserving cultural heritage and lifting up stories that have been left out of the spotlight.

And I think we know, from our experience, these stories are among the most powerful things that we have and that we can share.  Narrative is so vital for actually reaching people not only in their heads but reaching them in their hearts, and this too is the work that we’re able to do together, the Smithsonian and the State Department.

In the years to come, the department, the Smithsonian will continue working together and, with our colleagues across the globe, grow these programs, expand other exchanges, develop new partnerships.  As we do that, we will keep realizing James Smithson’s vision of an increase and diffusion of knowledge, benefiting Americans, benefiting people around the world.

So, thank you to each and every one of you for being here today, for making this day possible.  As I said to Lonnie earlier, this is an important day, but the 364 days that follow will really be important as we actually get to work on implementing the agreement we’re about to sign, which we will do now.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY ALLEN:  This memorandum of understanding between the State Department and Smithsonian includes new collaborations in science and research, and will expand art, educational, cultural, and scientific exchanges.  The Department of State is proud to renew its partnership with Smithsonian, an institution whose expertise has led the global conversation on cultural heritage, storytelling, and scientific discovery.

Please join me in a round of applause.  (Applause.)  Thank you all for coming.  We look forward to working together.  Thank you.

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-a-memorandum-of-understanding-signing-ceremony-with-the-smithsonian-institution/

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