History is people to 'Smithsonian' host David McCullough
Directly under the John Glenn space capsule in the lobby of the National Air and Space Museum is an appropriate place to meet David McCullough, host of ''Smithsonian World.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Mr. McCullough, a writer and historian who has authored four distinguished pop-history books, including the much-acclaimed ''Mornings on Horseback'' biography of Theodore Roosevelt, had suggested it as the starting point for a walking-tour interview concerning the new series he hosts: Smithsonian World (PBS, airing monthly throughout 1984, starting Wednesday, Jan. 18, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats). The WETA/Washington series, which uses the resources of the Smithsonian Institution (13 museums, the National Zoo, and seven research institutes), has a production budget of $3.5 million.
Executive producer Martin Carr, the guiding force of the series, jokingly describes his search for a host as a quest to locate a man who combines the talents of Jacob Bronowski (''The Ascent of Man'') and Alistair Cooke (''America'' and ''Masterpiece Theatre''). According to Carr, he has come up with a superbly literate guide in the person of McCullough, ''the first major PBS host without a British accent.''
How does Pittsburgh-born, Yale-educated McCullough feel about being called ''an American Alistair Cooke''?
He shrugs. ''I don't care about that. I'd probably do the same if I were a critic. I'm a me, is what I am - a storyteller, a teacher, a host, a me.''
And a historian?
''I don't think of myself as a historian, because I think that implies a certain academic background and credentials that I don't have. I'm a writer.
''Most important, I like people. I'm very interested in the country, and I'm very interested in the time that we live in. I think history is the most wonderful subject imaginable because it's about people. It's the story of how we came to be who we are and what we are. What could be more interesting than that? I think that one of the reasons history is often regarded as dull by people is that it's too often written about and taught by people who aren't interested in people.''
McCullough, with books on such subjects as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, adds: ''The more I write history, the more convinced I am that we've done a terrible disservice often in our education (system) by being put on a track. You're good in history, but you're not good in math. You're good in English, but stay away from chemistry. And we get this built-in notion that there are barriers between these activities of the mind and that somehow they are incompatible - and that somehow the people who are seriously involved with them are incompatible with one another. That's absolute nonsense.''
As for how all this relates to his TV show, he says: ''If there's any service that we're performing with this series, aside from bringing the Smithsonian to a larger audience, it is that we're really showing the possibilities in the life of the mind. I would hope that some youngsters on seeing this series will say, 'Boy, maybe I'd like to do that, too! Maybe that's the kind of life I'd like to lead. Maybe life isn't the limited set of choices I've been shown till now!' ''
I have previewed the premiere of ''Smithsonian World'' and can report that it hits that mark almost immediately. Without benefit of cheap flash or extraneous frills, McCullough takes viewers to the heart of the matter. He depends on the inherent interest of the material and the enthusiasm of the other researchers who appear on the program to carry the delightful burden of imparting knowledge spiced with entertainment.