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A man with short gray hair, wearing dark blazer and white shirt, smiles as he leans against a balcony railing, with trees and the Lincoln Memorial in the background.

Ratmir Timashev enjoying the view of Washington, D.C., during the opening reception of the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Photo courtesy of the Timashev Family Foundation

  • The Power of Culture and Technology in Museums: A Q&A with Ratmir Timashev

    In 2022, the Timashev Family Foundation generously sponsored the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s opening concert, “The Gifts We Carry: Sounds of Migration and Memory.” Hosted by world-renowned cellist and former Folklife Festival collaborator Yo-Yo Ma, the concert was a heartening display of cultural unity that featured local D.C. artists, Ukrainian Americans, and refugees from Afghanistan.

    As we planned this special cross-cultural presentation, the themes particularly resonated with Ratmir Timashev, the philanthropist behind the Timashev Family Foundation. Coming from a family that valued music and the arts, he has a deep appreciation for the role culture plays in preserving traditions and bringing people together.

    In this Q&A, Ratmir shares his own behind-the-scenes experience at the Smithsonian museums and his palpable excitement for catalyzing technology to broaden access to the institution. He also shares his inspiring vision for the future of the foundation and the impact he and his wife, Angela, would like to leave through their legacy of philanthropic giving.  

    What has living in the United States taught you about the vitality of recognizing and celebrating culture?

    I’ve lived in America for most of my adult life, including many years in the diverse city of Columbus, Ohio. It turns out that the Midwest was the ideal place for my most formative years. I was welcomed with open arms, as a young student from the western region of Russia, into a community built around the campus of The Ohio State University. This sense of openness and warmth let a newcomer like me in the early 1990s feel welcomed into many different homes and friendships, learning from cultures different from my own—while always getting to share what I love most about my own.

    Culture has the power to bring us together, by reminding us of the values we share and empowering us to be the best versions of ourselves. Today, technology can keep us apart (think about a room full of people checking their phones instead of conversing with one another), or it can bring us together like never before (like people from all different backgrounds livestreaming a concert from all over the world). We need to be thoughtful and intentional about finding every opportunity to bring people together with shared experiences like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    Performers seated on stage, and Yo-Yo Ma, standing with a cello and talking into a microphone, on the left.
    Yo-Yo Ma hosted the opening concert of the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, supported by the Timashev Family Foundation.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    You made a generous donation last year to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and its opening concert, featuring musical traditions of refugees and other immigrants. What role has music played in your own cultural heritage? 

    Music was a big part of my childhood, and my wife Angela and I have made it a part of our family’s experience as well. When I was young, I learned to play a traditional string instrument dating back to the sixteenth century, known as a domra, which is similar to a lute. I took pride in the fact that I could play songs that my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents loved and passed down to me. It helped me feel connected to my heritage.

    Contributing to the opening concert was so meaningful because it brought together musicians and poets, as well as heritage instruments and these incredible stories, into a superb musical experience. A truly unique human experience. Complementing these arrangements with insights and music of his own was the awe-inspiring cellist Yo-Yo Ma–one of the greatest string musicians of all time. I was especially happy to see so many young people in the audience, and it wasn’t lost on any of us that as we emerge from this multi-year pandemic, this was perhaps the first large-scale performance that many of these children had ever attended in person.

    What is your vision for how technology can expand access to culture?

    I was lucky to tour the Smithsonian earlier last summer and not only interact with its many collections and museums, but to also get a deep dive into all the cutting-edge technology the institution is tapping into. I remember the surreal feeling of being in the cockpit (virtually) and flying the Wright Brothers’ first test airplane, all while enjoying the comfort of sitting in an office chair in Washington, D.C. I came in already knowing how businesses are using virtual reality and augmented reality to innovate (including, a new AR-powered fashion company that my son is helping to build!), and it’s exciting to see the Smithsonian become leaders in this space.

    I can’t help but think back to memories of the early days of the internet, when we were all still figuring out how to use this brand-new technology. Except now, we are getting to build new tools and capacity that can boost the reach of educational institutions like the Smithsonian. My hope is that this technology will also allow people to take a walk in the shoes of others and learn about daily life in other cultures without having to leave the comfort of their own living room. This type of experiential learning could open new avenues for celebrating and embracing cultural diversity in a far more democratic and accessible way.

    Together with your wife, Angela, you run the Timashev Family Foundation—which contributes to arts programs and museums across the United States, in addition to your alma mater, The Ohio State University—which just completed the construction of the new Timashev Family Music Building. What prompted you to become a philanthropist? What do you hope your children will learn from your giving, and how do they shape the foundation’s vision?

    I’m humbled by the idea that I, like so many before me, am a beneficiary of the American dream. To our family, it just makes sense that when you’ve benefited from the kind of opportunities we have, there’s a responsibility to create the same kind of opportunities for the next generations.

    Like most parents, Angela and I spend a lot of time thinking about the world we’re leaving for our children. We try to pass down our values of generosity, community, and respect for others and their cultures, and this kind of thinking became a driving force behind creating the Timashev Family Foundation and the causes we support. Education, innovation, the arts, and community organizations are all part of what we see as the critical work of building and empowering the next generation.

    You recently visited the Smithsonian—meeting with Secretary Lonnie Bunch and enjoying behind-the-scenes tours at the Smithsonian Learning Lab, National Air and Space Museum, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Digitization Program Office, and the National Museum of American History. What were some of the highlights?

    Two men wearing yellow safety vests and white hard hats with the Smithsonian logo pose in front of an airplane suspended from the ceiling in a museum.
    Last summer, Ratmir Timashev and Richard Kurin, interim director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, toured the National Air and Space Museum before its reopening in October 2022.
    Photo courtesy of the Timashev Family Foundation

    Most Americans are aware that the Smithsonian is home to some of the world’s top museums and collections, but few stop to think about the sheer magnitude of its impact on preserving American and global heritage. Across science, technology, culture, and the world as a whole, I loved getting to roll up my sleeves and dive into the many areas that the Smithsonian is involved with.

    As a technologist, I enjoyed learning more about the Smithsonian’s work in 3D printing and augmented reality, which hold the promise to bring more people into the Smithsonian who could otherwise not travel there, as well as bring physical artifacts to places they’ve never before been. 

    What I took away the most from my visit was a deep appreciation for the passionate people who make it all happen. Technology is only as good as the people who bring it to life, and the Smithsonian team is doing a remarkable job of doing that.

    We have one last question for you: what about the Smithsonian inspires you?

    I’m inspired when I think about the fact that almost every single American has a memory of visiting a Smithsonian museum as a child, along with countless more people around the world. Its museums and collections are such an important part of the American cultural heritage and experience. And as excited as I am for the ways technology can bring us together virtually, I’m most inspired to see that the Smithsonian museums continue to be filled with young people who are getting the same experiences today that many of us had decades ago.

    Haili Francis is the major gift officer at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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