Smithsonian Presents Great Americans Medal to Yo-Yo Ma 

Performance and Interview To Highlight National Museum of American History Ceremony

Yo-Yo Ma

EMBARGOED UNTIL 7 P.M. MAY 9, 2023

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will present its Great Americans Medal to Yo-Yo Ma May 9 for his extraordinary impact as a musician and cultural ambassador. The presentation, with a special performance by Ma, is part of the Great Americans Medal Awards Program, the museum’s signature honor. Ma will be the ninth honoree and the second musician to receive the award.

Supported by philanthropist and Smithsonian Regent Emeritus David M. Rubenstein, the ceremony will include a conversation between Rubenstein and Ma, preceded by a special performance featuring the cellist alongside the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society’s Artistic Director Kenneth Slowik and cellists Kamila Dotta, Francesca McNeeley and Nathaniel Taylor on the museum’s 1701 “Servais” Stradivarius, 1688 “Marylebone” Stradivarius and 1677 “Herbert” Amati violoncellos, a Schubert era fortepiano and 1899 Steinway. The evening’s performance will be a multisensory telling of American history commemorating the intersection of the music enjoyed and played by President Thomas Jefferson and the family of Fredrick Douglass, including his violinist grandson, Joseph Henry Douglass; composers ranging from J.S. Bach and J. Raff to Henry Thacker Burleigh and Scott Joplin; and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Ma will receive the Great Americans Medal for lifetime contributions embodying American ideas and ideals from the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director Anthea M. Hartig with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III.

“Yo-Yo Ma’s brilliant and tireless artistry stimulates imaginations, fosters connections, and reinforces our shared humanity,” Hartig said. “His genius lies in engaging audiences in unexpected, wide-ranging, and poignant explorations of music’s lasting role in our culture.”

Since its inception in 2016, the Great Americans Medal Award Program has honored those who have not only made a lasting impact in their fields but also whose philanthropic and humanitarian endeavors have set them apart. This will be the first ceremony that includes a musical performance by the honoree. In addition to Slowik, Dotta, McNeeley and Taylor, Ma will be joined on the stage by Bunch.

Most recently, Ma began Our Common Nature, a cultural journey to celebrate the ways that nature can reunite people in pursuit of a shared future. It follows his Bach Project, a 36-community, six-continent tour of the Bach cello suites paired with local cultural programming. Both endeavors reflect Ma’s lifelong commitment to stretching the boundaries of genre and tradition to understand how music helps people imagine and build a stronger society.

It was this belief that inspired the formation of Silkroad, the global music collective. Through his work with Silkroad, as well as throughout his career, Ma has sought to expand the cello repertoire, premiering compositions by Osvaldo Golijov, Leon Kirchner, Zhao Lin, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Giovanni Sollima and John Williams, among many others.

In addition to his work as a performing artist, Ma has partnered with communities and institutions around the world to develop programs advocating for a future guided by humanity, trust and understanding. Ma is a United Nations Messenger of Peace, the first artist ever appointed to the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees and a member of the board of Nia Tero, the U.S.-based nonprofit working in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and movements worldwide.

Ma has performed for nine American presidents, most recently at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. His discography of more than 120 albums (including 19 Grammy Award winners) ranges from iconic renditions of the Western classical canon to recordings that defy categorization, such as Hush with Bobby McFerrin and the Goat Rodeo Sessions with Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Ma’s recent releases include Six Evolutions, his third recording of Bach’s cello suites, and Songs of Comfort and Hope, created and recorded with pianist Kathryn Stott in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His latest album, Beethoven for Three: Symphony No. 6 and Op. 1, No. 3, is the second in a new series of Beethoven recordings with pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos.

Among Ma’s numerous awards are the Avery Fisher Prize (1978), the National Medal of the Arts (2001), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), Kennedy Center Honors (2011), the Polar Music Prize (2012) and the Birgit Nilsson Prize (2022).

About the Great Americans Medal
The museum will present Ma with a specially minted medal struck in Wisconsin from 1.85 ounces of fine gold. It features an American eagle with rays of the sun on the obverse or “head’s side” with the words “Great Americans” and “National Museum of American History” engraved around the edge. The reverse side honors one of the museum’s most important treasures, the Star-Spangled Banner, and includes the mission of the Smithsonian: “For the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” It measures approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter and was inspired by the rare Double Eagle coins in the museum’s National Numismatic Collection, which were designed by famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the $20 gold piece. The medal was made possible by museum board member Jeff Garrett and designed by Michael Guilfoyle, an international designer of coins and medals.

The presentation of the Great Americans Medal includes an interview with the awardee by Rubenstein; his interviews trace the arc of honorees’ personal lives and careers for a broader understanding of the nation’s shared democracy and values. Honorees’ accomplishments and influence on American history connect to the museum’s collections and exhibitions, including the impact of American giving. Previous honorees include Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Gen. Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.), Thomas J. Brokaw, Cal Ripken Jr., Billie Jean King, Paul Simon, Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. and posthumously to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Videos of the recipients along with more information can be found on the Great Americans website and on the Great Americans YouTube playlist.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open daily except Dec. 25, between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, PK–12 educational materials and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

Media only:

Melinda Machado 202-633-3129; machadom@si.edu
Laura Duff 202-633-3129; duffl@si.edu