Learning at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

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I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we present another in our series about continuing education programs for older Americans.  We tell about the Smithsonian Associates.

Every day, thousands of people walk along the grassy area in the center of Washington D.C. called the National Mall.  They are on their way to visit the museums of the Smithsonian Institution.  Visitors of all ages want to see and learn from the millions of objects that are part of the Smithsonian's collection.

Some adults enter a small building next to the Smithsonian's red brick castle on the Mall.  Many are carrying notebooks and pens.  Others are carrying bags of art supplies.  Most of them are older and have retired from their jobs.

They are going to underground classrooms in the S. Dillon Ripley Center to continue their education.  They are learning about such subjects as history, science and international issues.  Or they are developing new skills in areas such as photography, drawing or making jewelry.

S. Dillon Ripley was head of the Smithsonian Institution from nineteen sixty-four to nineteen eighty-four.  He wanted to expand the Smithsonian through programs that bring the museums to life so people could learn and have fun doing it.  His purpose, he said, was to "change the image of the place as a dusty attic populated solely by researchers counting beetles."

During his twenty years in office, Secretary Ripley added seven research facilities and eight museums including the National Air and Space Museum.  He started the Smithsonian Magazine that is read by people around the world.  In nineteen sixty-five, he began a public education program, the Smithsonian Associates.  He believed the Smithsonian should be educating the public at the same time it supported independent scientific research.

Since it began, the Smithsonian Associates has provided thousands of educational and cultural programs.  Each year the organization offers almost one thousand activities to people who live in the Washington area.  The activities include classes, talks, performances, films and trips.

The Smithsonian Associates education program was an experimental idea when Mr. Ripley began it.  Today it is a proven success.  It is the nation's largest museum-based continuing education program.

About eighty thousand individuals who live in the Washington area belong to the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program.  They pay every year to be members.  Every month they receive a magazine describing programs offered during the coming months.  Members pay for the classes or lectures.  The cost for classes is much less than it would be to take them at a university.  Many of the Smithsonian events offer speakers or performers who do not appear anywhere else in the Washington area.

About half of the resident Smithsonian Associates members are age fifty-eight or older.  Christine Cimino is a public affairs officer for the organization.  She says many of its programs are aimed at older members who have more time to attend the events.

Members of the Associates are highly educated.  Ninety-five percent of them have graduated from college.

The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world.  Its collections cover almost every possible subject.  So do the educational programs of the Smithsonian Associates.  The major areas of interest are art and architecture, food, history, literature, science and religion.

Christine Cimino says that programs about art have been the most popular.  History is second, followed by science programs.  Many people are interested in studio arts where they learn how to make art, not just look at it.

Painting, drawing, quilting and photography classes have been offered for years.  Classes in digital photography have been added recently and are filled with members of all ages.  Some adults decide after they retire that they want to improve their photographs.  So they take one of the many photography classes the Smithsonian Associates offers.  People taking the classes can use a large darkroom for developing and printing photographs and a computer laboratory for digital media.

Many subjects have been included in the Smithsonian Associates program for years – such as Greek history, the Bible and new discoveries in archeology.  Other subjects are newer and are linked to changes in popular culture.

For example, Ms. Cimino says more self-help talks and classes are being offered now.  She says older members are interested in learning about what they should do to keep their memories sharp.

Adults who are about to retire want to know about ways to improve their financial situation.  Those who have already retired want to find out about interesting places for travel.  People of all ages are interested in programs about cooking and new restaurants in the area.  And classes about ways to deal with the tension of daily life are popular with everyone.

The people who teach the classes are experts in their subjects.  Many have written books. They come from all over the United States and from other countries.  After they speak, members of the Associates can ask them questions and buy their books.  Ms. Cimino says classes used to meet for a few hours each week for six weeks.  But now, many classes are held in one day, during a weekend, or four nights in one week.  The reason, she says, is that people are too busy –- even adults who have retired.

In one month's time, the Smithsonian Associates offers a huge selection of education programs.  It is possible to find a class, a lecture or a performance to attend almost every day of the month.

For example, a two-day seminar about Genghis Kahn's Mongolia was offered on the first weekend of one month.   The next Saturday, there were three all-day seminars -- the Origins of the Bible, Russian Art, and the Neuroscience of Human Relationships.  Other weekend seminars later that same month included How to Make the Most of Your Memory; America's Constitution; and Space, Time and the Multiverse.

Single lectures during that month covered many other subjects:  The Voyage of the Mayflower in Sixteen Twenty.  The American Air Campaign Against Nazi Germany.  Tasting Portuguese Wine.  Mysteries of the Middle Ages.  Deepak Chopra on Life After Death.  A reading of Homer's poem, the "Odyssey," at the Embassy of Greece.

A series of once a week classes meeting that month provided Smithsonian Associates members with a chance for more in-depth learning.  There were classes about The Golden Age of Cities, American Popular Music, and The Art of Thinking.  One class was The Power of Ritual in Religion. Each week a different expert discussed the important ceremonies and principles of the five major religions:  Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist.

Studio Arts classes included Architectural Photography, Beginning Drawing and Sumi-E and Shodo: Traditional Japanese Ink Painting and Calligraphy.  There were also several trips that month.  Members could visit nearby Civil War battlefields.  Fly to Niagara Falls for a day. Or explore glass factories in West Virginia for four days.  At night, they could hear Music of the Jazz Masters, R. Carlos Nakai's Magic Flute or classical music by the Twentieth Century Consort.

Several groups of adults are leaving the Smithsonian Associates classrooms in the Ripley Center. They are busy commenting on what they learned that day.  The discussions continue as the older students walk across the Mall to return to their homes.

A man carrying brushes and an almost finished oil painting says he is having fun learning to paint.  He wanted to try it for years but never had the time when he was younger.  A woman carrying a notebook says she was worried she would miss the excitement of work when she retired.  But she says continuing to learn through Smithsonian Associates programs makes life interesting and keeps her feeling young.

This program was written by Marilyn Christiano and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember.  You can find more about continuing education programs on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.  Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: Learning at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
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