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Climbing the Ranks at the Smithsonian Institution

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Amy Ballard
Illustration by Peter Hoey

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success offers a formula for success—being born in the right place and time and investing at least 10,000 hours in pursuit of your goal. Amy Ballard, CAS/BA ’75, who will celebrate 40 years at the Smithsonian Institution next year, has certainly surpassed that milestone. As senior historic preservation specialist, Ballard works to protect the Smithsonian’s diverse buildings. In addition to preserving the past, she also helps to shape the future, contributing to plans for new buildings such as the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

1973: Inspired by a love of Russian literature, made her first visit to Russia—a trek she would make more than 30 times.

1975: Graduated from AU with a degree in art history. While at AU, learned Marjorie Merriweather Post had willed Hillwood Estate—home to an extensive collection of Russian decorative arts—to the Smithsonian. Landed a volunteer position cataloging the collection.

1976: Offered a position as assistant to Smithsonian Keeper of the Castle James Goode. One month later, caught a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the Castle.

1978: Added “owl caretaker” to her résumé when Dillon Ripley, ornithologist and former Smithsonian secretary, revived nineteenth-century tradition of housing barn owls in Castle’s northwest tower. Twice a week, donned National Zoo jumpsuit and helmet, climbed five-story ladder, and fed owls a sack of dead rats."Throughout my career, this owl story has always followed me, no matter what other things I do." 

1985: Named historic preservation specialist. Relished opportunity to work with museum directors and maintenance workers, architects and engineers, curators and construction crews. "When I go to to a museum, it isn't really to look at the art. I have to look at floors and smoke detectors and light fixtures."

1987: After department reorganized into Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation, took graduate courses in architectural history and historic preservation at George Washington University.

1999: Attended intensive course at State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, studying its architecture and collections.

2001: Attended England’s Attingham Trust Study Programme for in-depth studies on historic buildings.

2002: Created a single-case exhibit, “Madam on the Mall,” featuring porcelain, champagne corks, and other relics from a nineteenth-century brothel unearthed during construction of the National Museum of the American Indian. "It was Washington's most expensive and exclusive brothel." Attended England’s Attingham Trust Royal Collection Studies Programme.

2003: With National Museum of African American History and Culture officially established, became part of the multiyear planning effort. Received the 300th Anniversary of Saint Petersburg Medal for her work advising DC’s Russian Embassy and Russian Cultural Centre on exhibits. Honored at the embassy, where former ambassador Yuri Ushakov pinned on the medal.

2004: National Museum of the American Indian opened. "That was one of the best projects I've worked on. It was neat to be in vision services with Native Americans and meet medicine men."  

2009: Won a Likhachev Foundation Fellowship, spending two weeks in Saint Petersburg to work on projects related to historic preservation and Russian music. Coauthored A Guide to Smithsonian Architecture.

2010: Promoted to senior historic preservation specialist. "There aren't many of us who have been at the Smithsonian as long as I have, so I'm often asked for advice. I'm always happy to help." 

2011: Created online St. Petersburg Music Guide to help visitors to that city experience the breadth of its musical offerings.

2012: On a South American cruise, met the consul general for Vladivostok, Russia, who invited her to that city to speak to museum professionals. A few months later, she made the first of many such trips.

2014: Joined the Board of Trustees of the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, coming full circle to her very first museum job.


Story appeared in the November 2015 issue of American magazine.