noun: a person . . . who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities
With the recent passing of Dr. Martin E. Sullivan on February 25, the museum and education fields have “lost a very special, dear, gentle soul” who moved with quiet and respectful determination to improve both of these fields, raising standards of museum practices in the many institutions his life touched.
As with many visitors to the National Portrait Gallery, Martin (Marty) Sullivan looked to the biographies of individuals to learn from their lives and their experiences. The writings of microbiologist René Dubos held a special meaning for him, as he would quote him often: “think globally, act locally.” Perhaps my favorite of Dubos’s lessons that Marty relayed was the ancient etymological definition of the word enthusiasm: to be possessed by a spirit, to have a divine inspiration.* Marty chose his words carefully, and so it is with due consideration that I write: Marty’s enthusiasm for a life lived to the highest principles has been an inspiration to everyone who knew him.
One of Marty’s personal favorites—his hero—was General George C. Marshall, whose portrait is on display in the gallery (below). Alongside this noble portrait is a small text panel that reads: “This portrait adopted in honor of Martin E. Sullivan, who served as the National Portrait Gallery’s fifth director.” Early in Marty’s tenure as director, he gave a gallery talk about the life of General Marshall that also provides a good deal of insight into Marty’s own personality—his sense of humor and his deep respect for those who live with integrity and selflessness (as he himself did as well).
Respect for leadership is not demanded with a clenched fist banging on a table—it is earned over time in the example one makes for others, in the challenges faced and weathered:
The most important factor of all is character, which involves integrity, unselfish and devoted purpose, a sturdiness of bearing when everything goes wrong and all are critical, and a willingness to sacrifice self in the interest of the common good.
—General George C. Marshall, writing to Miss Craig’s class in Roanoke, Virginia, 1944
“Who owns the past?” This simply stated question was the title of the course that first introduced me to Marty’s teaching thirteen years ago. This sort of question was also a hallmark of his teaching style—a carefully worded pause to be sure that you were paying attention, that you were internalizing the issue at hand. Over the course of that semester, Marty challenged us to reconsider what we had been taught and to rethink assumptions ingrained in us by society in our twenty-odd years.
We learned about the challenging—but very important—process of interpreting sensitive information in museums like the United States Holocaust Museum and the Te Papa museum in New Zealand, where stakeholders have a personal investment in the powerful exhibitions on display. We reviewed the ongoing conflicts between Native American communities and scientists regarding archaeological excavations and the disposition of human remains in museum collections, particularly as institutions across the nation grappled with repatriation claims by Native communities seeking their ancestors’ remains.
I remembered being shocked that the interpretation in the halls of hallowed cultural institutions was not absolute. I slowly began to realize that Marty was not simply pulling together interesting stories for the sake of a syllabus, but was relaying important lessons learned over a lifetime of dedication to improving those institutions for everyone: scholars, stakeholders, and the general public alike.
In some of our final lessons, we discussed exhibitions that were considered controversial. As a typical case study exercise, we turned over the issues at the heart of the controversies and how the museums involved handled them. With simply stated questions, Marty asked what could have been done to reach a better outcome. Although there were specific answers, there was also the realization that in these instances the outcome achieved was its own lesson for the future. The teachable moment is never lost so long as the lesson is remembered. I never imagined that I would see him in action for the newest case study in controversial exhibitions, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”
Prior to the notoriety of the “Hide/Seek” controversy, Marty was already on the news circuit in 2003 regarding his letter to President George W. Bush in which he resigned from the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property to protest the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum of Antiquities. “Dear Cara, I fell on my sword this morning!” he wrote, guessing that his letter would not gain much attention.
But as should happen with someone who speaks truth to power, someone with a record of dedication, courage, and commitment, people sat up and took notice. It was not a new lesson—the looting was preventable, and the results were devastating. Appropriate planning would have achieved a better outcome, as we have seen in the preventive measures instituted during World War II.
With quiet determination and adherence to protocol, Marty delivered his message.
My dear friend, thank you for your enthusiasm. I am grateful to be among the many who have been inspired by your example. I will miss our conversations more than I can say. I know that you did not have as much time in the classroom as you would have liked, but I can say from experience that you were an educator first in everything you did. Your lessons will always be with me; you are one of my heroes.
—Caralyn R. Fama, Executive Assistant, National Portrait Gallery
*Thanks to National Portrait Gallery Historian Amy Henderson for providing the link to Dubos as the author.