Dear Friends and Supporters of the Lemelson Center,
By many measures, 2020 was a revealing year. The coronavirus pandemic revealed decades of underinvestment in public health infrastructure around the world. Black Lives Matter protests revealed systemic racism in the United States that extends into inequalities in the invention and innovation ecosystems. And the development of new face masks, new ventilators, and, as of this writing, three effective new vaccines revealed how both individual inventors and large biomedical research labs responded with amazing speed and ingenuity when faced with COVID-19 and associated changes to work and leisure.
For the Lemelson Center, 2020 was a year of shifting from in-person to remote collaboration, with focused attention on research and exhibition development for Game Changers; creating new online invention learning activities and challenges; completing the Picturing Women Inventors exhibition and poster series; organizing and hosting Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives, a major online webinar; and diverse other projects.
The year was also one of building on the past as the Lemelson Center marked its 25th year of operations. When the initial gift was reported in the Washington Post on June 1, 1995—under the headline, "The Motherlode of Invention"—the Lemelson Center’s founding director, Art Molella, was quoted as saying that the center would “stimulate new thinking.” Since that time, the Lemelson Center team has collected the archival holdings of some 50 inventors, organized 25 New Perspectives conferences or workshops, hosted 90 fellows and 39 archival interns, created major exhibitions onsite in the National Museum of American History as well as ones that traveled internationally, pioneered Innoskate and other novel approaches to public engagement such as the ACCelerate and Military Invention Day festivals, interviewed over 90 inventors and innovators as part of the Innovative Lives program series, and created Spark!Lab and the expanding Spark!Lab Network, which together host some 725,000 youths and families annually when museums are open. It is exciting to build on this legacy and to celebrate the support of our donors, especially Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson and their family.
Looking ahead, 2021 begins with serious challenges for nonprofits like the Smithsonian Institution that have been hit hard by shutdowns. We are emphasizing the safety of visitors and staff as our top priority, and we are working toward a safe reopening of Draper Spark!Lab, Spark!Lab Network sites across the country, and the Places of Invention and Inventive Minds exhibitions in the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation.
At the same time, our work on the Game Changers exhibition is advancing in 2021 with collaborative testing and iteration of exhibition messaging and interactive elements with priority audiences, which include Black youth aged 10-17, girls aged 10-17, and people with disabilities. The team is creating additional Spark!Lab digital activities to engage young people outside of school. We are developing “Inspiring STEM Pathways: Contemporary Black Inventors as Role Models for the Next Generation,” a new initiative that will record oral histories with Black inventors working in various industries, as the basis for educational materials for middle and high school students. And our Innovative Lives programs are going strong online with an amazing lineup of inventors and innovators—join us on Zoom or watch them afterwards on our YouTube channel.
Looking further ahead, I fervently hope the Lemelson Center’s 50th anniversary in 2045 is not marked by a global pandemic and economic disruption on the scale we witnessed in 2020. But I do expect and envision that our work today and in coming years will contribute to a more equitable invention and innovation ecosystem, with it becoming a matter of course, not an outlier, to feature BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) inventors in biographies and in celebrations of American invention, even as young people worldwide see becoming an inventor as a pathway genuinely open to them.
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director