Cas­tle in Dis­re­pair

It’s been politi­cized and kitschi­fied, and its lus­ter is gone. The Smith­so­nian needs to get back to ba­sics.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Robert Sul­li­van

The Smith­so­nian has just awak­ened from a lead­er­ship night­mare. On this groggy morn­ing af­ter, it finds it­self soiled by com­mer­cial­ism, Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion and politi­ciza­tion, and sorely in need of a metic­u­lous scrub­bing. Sup­port­ers of now-de­parted sec­re­tary Lawrence M. Small have char­ac­ter­ized the for­mer bank­ing ex­ec­u­tive’s ten­ure at the Smith­so­nian’s helm as a “clash of cul­tures,” posit­ing crisp, data-based cor­po­rate val­ues on Small’s side and airy, ivory-tower aca­demic val­ues on the other. Noth­ing is fur­ther from the truth. The Smith­so­nian is blessed with com­pe­tent, high-per­form­ing staff who have been mis­led and dis­re­spected by a dys­func­tional bu­reau­cracy and mis­guided de­ci­sion-mak­ing. All of this was or­ches­trated by Small and his ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter he be­came the Smith­so­nian’s 11th sec­re­tary in 2000.

The ques­tion­able deals and val­ues of the Busi­ness Ven­tures Unit that Small pro­moted have tainted and com­pro­mised the Smith­so­nian with­out gen­er­at­ing any sig­nif­i­cant in­creases in in­come over the past seven years. An ob­ses­sion with pro­tect­ing con­gres­sional sup­port and ap­pro­pri­a­tions led to the cen­sor­ing of ex­hi­bi­tions and the avoid­ance of “con­tro­ver­sial” top­ics, while the de­sire to cre­ate a high-vol­ume tourist des­ti­na­tion meant that con­tent was dumbed down and in­ter­pre­tive themes were over­sim­pli­fied.

Con­sider th­ese re­cent fail­ures: The in­flated at­ten­dance and in­come pro­jec­tions used to jus­tify the Steven F. Ud­var-Hazy Cen­ter — the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum’s com­pan­ion fa­cil­ity near Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port that opened in late 2003 — were woe­fully op­ti­mistic, and the re­sult­ing in­come short­fall has be­come a fi­nan­cial strain on the in­sti­tu­tion. The con­fus­ing, light-on-con­tent ex­hibits of the Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian have failed to sus­tain pub­lic in­ter­est; at­ten­dance has sunk by 50 per­cent since the mu­seum opened in 2004. The Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum fi­nally opened last year — two years be­hind sched­ule and $30 mil­lion over bud­get. The Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory is closed for ren­o­va­tion, but the lack of money means that

Cup­grades planned for its ex­hibits are at se­vere risk.

This past decade has not been a clash of cul­tures, but a cri­sis of com­pe­tence at the top of the Smith­so­nian.

When Joseph Henry, the first sec­re­tary of the Smith­so­nian and ar­guably the fore­most Amer­i­can sci­en­tist of the 19th cen­tury, balked at leav­ing his po­si­tion at Prince­ton in 1846 to lead the fledg­ling in­sti­tu­tion, his friend Alexan­der Dal­las Bache wrote to him: “Science tri­umphs in you my dear friend & come you must. Re­deem Wash­ing­ton. Save this great Na­tional In­sti­tu­tion from the hands of char­la­tans. . . . You have a name which must go down to His­tory as the great founder of a great In­sti­tu­tion. The first Sec­re­tary of the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute.”

Henry did come, un­der­stand­ing that the Smith­so­nian was to be an in­ter­na­tional sym­bol of Amer­ica’s cul­tural com­mit­ment to schol­ar­ship and learn­ing. In my 16 years at the in­sti­tu­tion, I was stunned by how many in­ter­na­tional cul­tural lead­ers came here to learn how to im­port the idea of the Smith­so­nian to their cap­i­tals — the idea of a sym­bol of na­tional pride and iden­tity free and open to tens of mil­lions of vis­i­tors to en­joy an­nu­ally.

Those of us inside the Belt­way tend to take the Smith­so­nian for granted and lose sight of its true scope as a na­tional and in­ter­na­tional as­set. But it’s time for Congress and the Smith­so­nian’s Board of Re­gents to take the in­sti­tu­tion and its role as an Amer­i­can icon se­ri­ously again, to honor the legacy of lead­er­ship that char­ac­ter­ized the first sec­re­taries. ongress should cease us­ing its bud­getary clout to politi­cize the Smith­so­nian and pre­vent its schol­ars from speak­ing with clar­ity and courage about the key is­sues of our time, such as global warm­ing and hu­man rights. Ex­hi­bi­tion scripts must now be edited by the Smith­so­nian’s pub­lic re­la­tions of­fice be­fore they are for­mally ap­proved. Ex­hibit open­ings are de­layed and con­tent is toned down to avoid con­flict with ad­min­is­tra­tion poli­cies. This self-edit­ing and cen­sor­ship will have to cease if the Smith­so­nian is to re­gain its rep­u­ta­tion and pub­lic stand­ing as an aca­dem­i­cally free source of trust­wor­thy, high­qual­ity con­tent.

The re­gents, mean­while, must take their stew­ard­ship and gov­er­nance role se­ri­ously. It was the Smith­so­nian’s rep­u­ta­tion and in­tegrity as a cen­ter of re­search and learn­ing that en­abled the fundrais­ing suc­cess of the past decade — not the per­sua­sive pow­ers of Larry Small. It is the re­spect and af­fec­tion that donors have for that se­ri­ous mis­sion and pur­pose that mo­ti­vates most of them to give. But this priceless cul­tural cap­i­tal has been squan­dered in the scan­dals of the past seven years.

The Smith­so­nian op­er­ates in the gift econ­omy, not the mar­ket econ­omy. The val­ues and be­hav­ior of the sec­re­tary and the re­gents should em­body the val­ues of that not-for-profit world. The re­gents need to re­cruit and ap­point a per­son of in­tegrity who will re­store the im­age and schol­arly stan­dards of the Smith­so­nian, along with the trust of the pub­lic and Congress.

The Smith­so­nian needs a leader who will re­store the con­fi­dence of a de­mor­al­ized staff, re­as­sure hes­i­tant donors that the in­sti­tu­tion’s in­tegrity and val­ues are se­cure, and en­cour­age its schol­ars to speak with clar­ity and courage on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues. None of the in-house can­di­dates men­tioned as pos­si­ble suc­ces­sors to Small has, in my view, the ca­pac­ity or ex­pe­ri­ence to ac­com­plish this. The aca­demic land­scape, how­ever, is pep­pered with charis­matic lead­ers of sub­stance, vi­sion and imag­i­na­tion who have led suc­cess­ful cap­i­tal cam­paigns for frac­tious or­ga­ni­za­tions with­out com­pro­mis­ing their stan­dards and aca­demic free­dom. Such a leader can be brought to the Smith­so­nian. Merely re­or­ga­niz­ing the ex­ist­ing play­ers will not do. The Smith­so­nian needs to be rein­vented.

The in­sti­tu­tion’s sci­en­tists are con­duct­ing crit­i­cal re­search in ar­eas of vi­tal im­por­tance to con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety. Whether it is the degra­da­tion of coral reefs or the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of habi­tats and species loss, th­ese sci­en­tists have to be able to speak with courage and con­vic­tion about their re­search and its con­se­quences. An in­sti­tu­tion of sub­stance and ideas must be al­lowed to say dan­ger­ous things and en­gage the pub­lic can­didly in an open fo­rum.

This ed­u­ca­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity has not been hon­ored in re­cent Smith­so­nian his­tory. One ex­am­ple: In a re­cent re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Pub­lic Pro­grams Of­fice at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, where I worked, the Of­fice of Mu­seum Ed­u­ca­tion, the crit­i­cal link be­tween the sci­en­tists, the col­lec­tions and school and fam­ily au­di­ences, was re­placed with the more tourist-friendly Of­fice of Vis­i­tor Ser­vices. But the mu­seum was on the verge of open­ing its new Ocean Hall, which in­cludes am­bi­tious ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nents. Elim­i­nat­ing the ed­u­ca­tion of­fice

» Robert Sul­li­van will dis­cuss his ar­ti­cle at noon Mon­day at www.wash­ing­ton­post.com was a crit­i­cal man­age­ment er­ror.

The next sec­re­tary will have to take the Smith­so­nian’s ed­u­ca­tional man­date se­ri­ously. The Smith­so­nian’s col­lec­tions, work­ing sci­en­tists and global re­search sta­tions rep­re­sent an un­tapped re­source for im­prov­ing science ed­u­ca­tion on a na­tional level at this time of ur­gent ed­u­ca­tional need. That im­mense po­ten­tial has re­mained dor­mant un­der the cur­rent Smith­so­nian ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The next sec­re­tary will also have to be a savvy be­hind-the-scenes con­gres­sional ne­go­tia­tor, but it will re­ally be his or her com­mit­ment to un­com­pro­mis­ing stan­dards of con­tent that will gen­er­ate sup­port from the pub­lic and Congress. In­creased con­gres­sional ap­pro­pri­a­tions for the core re­search and ed­u­ca­tional mis­sion of the Smith­so­nian have been mar­ginal over the past decade and prom­ise to be mar­ginal in the fu­ture. The base fed­eral bud­get eroded steadily un­der the Small ad­min­is­tra­tion. Re­cent in­creases in con­gres­sional al­lo­ca­tions have been mo­ti­vated chiefly by mem­bers’ shame over the shabby con­di­tion of the mu­seum build­ings on the Mall, within plain sight of their con­stituents. Con­gres­sional com­mit­ment to rec­ti­fy­ing so many prob­lems of the in­sti­tu­tion — the tragic con­di­tion of many col­lec­tions, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing staffing lev­els, aged ex­hi­bi­tions, the un­der­de­vel­oped Web site and more — was not gen­er­ated un­der Small.

In se­lect­ing the next sec­re­tary, the re­gents must think on a scale that re­flects the im­por­tance of the Smith­so­nian not only within Amer­ica’s in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural land­scape, but also as the lead­ing mu­seum and re­search com­plex in the world.

Iron­i­cally, when I called the Smith­so­nian Archives for the Bache quote used above, I was told that the Joseph Henry Pa­pers project — a crit­i­cal his­tor­i­cal and schol­arly project to in­dex and pub­lish all of the first sec­re­tary’s cor­re­spon­dence — has been dis­con­tin­ued, yet an­other sad cul­tural ca­su­alty of the Small ad­min­is­tra­tion.

rsul­li­van@choracre­ative.com

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

JOSEPH HENRY, FIRST SEC­RE­TARY OF THE SMITH­SO­NIAN IN­STI­TU­TION, CIRCA 1860; BY MATHEW BRADY — THE WASH­ING­TON POST AR­CHIVE

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