What Is the Smith­so­nian?

Richard Moe

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

With the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s Board of Re­gents pre­par­ing to se­lect a per­ma­nent suc­ces­sor to Lawrence M. Small, per­haps we should step back, change the con­ver­sa­tion from the re­cent con­tro­ver­sies and at­tempt to an­swer a few ba­sic ques­tions about this prized in­sti­tu­tion.

First and fore­most, what is the Smith­so­nian? Is it a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion, re­ceiv­ing, as it does, 70 per­cent of its rev­enue from Congress? Is it a pub­lic-private in­sti­tu­tion, able to main­tain its fa­cil­i­ties and ful­fill its mis­sion only with sig­nif­i­cant private sup­port? And if it’s the lat­ter, what are the con­se­quences?

There are many def­i­ni­tions of the Smith­so­nian. The in­sti­tu­tion calls it­self an “in­de­pen­dent trust es­tab­lish­ment.” An­other in­trigu­ing def­i­ni­tion is of “an in­de­pen­dent es­tab­lish­ment in the role of a ward of the U.S. gov­ern­ment, the trustee.” Maybe a Smith­so­nian-trained cryp­tol­o­gist can de­ci­pher that, but I’m hav­ing trou­ble. “Ward”? How do we rec­on­cile the de­pen­dency in­her­ent in that word with “an in­de­pen­dent es­tab­lish­ment”? And “trustee”?

The Smith­so­nian is, and al­ways has been, an anom­aly within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. In 1838 James Smith­son, an English sci­en­tist who had never been to the United States, be­queathed a half-mil­lion dol­lars to es­tab­lish an in­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton ded­i­cated to “the in­crease & dif­fu­sion of knowl­edge.” In 1846 Congress cre­ated the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, ded­i­cated to sci­en­tific re­search. Later it added the Na­tional Mu­seum, bring­ing to­gether the two pri­mary func­tions that re­main the in­sti­tu­tion’s core mis­sion.

To­day the Smith­so­nian con­sists of 19 mu­se­ums, the Na­tional Zoo and nine re­search cen­ters that con­tain 140 mil­lion ar­ti­facts and spec­i­mens. It has a bud­get of $1 bil­lion and at­tracts 28 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year. Not bad for Smith­son’s ini­tial in­vest­ment. Most im­por­tant, few would ques­tion the in­sti­tu­tion’s mis­sion and even fewer the skills and ded­i­ca­tion of those who serve it.

The ques­tion re­mains, though, what is it? And who is re­spon­si­ble for what? If the Smith­so­nian is a “ward” of the gov­ern­ment, how can the lat­ter, “the trustee,” per­mit its fa­cil­i­ties to de­te­ri­o­rate to the point where (as cur­rently) there is al­most $1.5 bil­lion in de­ferred main­te­nance? How can the Arts and In­dus­try Build­ing, the in­sti­tu­tion’s first ex­hibit space and one of Wash­ing­ton’s most his­toric build- ings, be al­lowed to sit va­cant on the Mall, crum­bling?

If Congress will not pro­vide for th­ese and other ba­sic needs, the in­sti­tu­tion’s lead­er­ship has no choice but to seek private funds. The re­al­ity of private fundrais­ing means that some­times gifts re­quire nam­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, and cor­po­rate gifts, such as last year’s Show­time Net­work ar­range­ment, are some­times seen as “com­mer­cial­iza­tion” of the in­sti­tu­tion. Re­cently, th­ese prac­tices have been crit­i­cized within the Smith­so­nian, on Capi­tol Hill and else­where. Well, we can’t have it both ways. If Congress in­sists that the Smith­so­nian raise such a sig­nif­i­cant part of its op­er­at­ing and main­te­nance costs, th­ese are the con­se­quences.

So, how do we en­sure that the Smith­so­nian can un­der­take ex­hibits and re­search of the high­est qual­ity yet re­main “in­de­pen­dent”? One way or an­other, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must play a larger role. There’s not an­other great na­tional mu­seum in the world whose gov­ern­ment doesn’t pro­vide vir­tu­ally all of its fund­ing. The Bri­tish Mu­seum in Lon­don, the Lou­vre in Paris, the Mu­seum of An­thro­pol­ogy in Mex­ico City — all are the na­tional pride of the gov­ern­ments that built and sup­port them. Shouldn’t Amer­i­cans have sim­i­lar pride in the Smith­so­nian, the stew­ard of our cul­tural and sci­en­tific his­tory?

The United States has a dif­fer­ent tra­di­tion of sup­port­ing cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties: It re­lies pri­mar­ily on private in­sti­tu­tions and on in­di­vid­u­als and foun­da­tions to fund those in­sti­tu­tions. For the most part, that prac­tice works well, but it fre­quently ob­scures the stew­ard­ship re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Un­for­tu­nately, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment doesn’t “do cul­ture” very well. It has nei­ther a long nor a par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive his­tory of do­ing so with any­thing re­sem­bling gen­er­ous sup­port. Like the Smith­so­nian, the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion, which I rep­re­sent, was cre­ated and funded by Congress. A decade ago Congress pro­vided more than half of the trust’s un­re­stricted in­come. But some law­mak­ers sought to con­trol what we should and shouldn’t be do­ing with pub­lic money. We stepped back, opted for in­de­pen­dence over fed­eral fund­ing, be­came an en­tirely pri­vately fi­nanced in­sti­tu­tion — and have never looked back.

The Smith­so­nian does not have that op­tion. Nei­ther Congress nor the Smith­so­nian can find a so­lu­tion on its own. We need a joint pres­i­den­tial-con­gres­sional-Smith­so­nian com­mis­sion with rep­re­sen­ta­tion from his­to­ri­ans, sci­en­tists, mu­seum of­fi­cials and the pub­lic, to dig deeply into all of th­ese is­sues, as well as board com­po­si­tion, salary lev­els and gov­er­nance, and come back with rec­om­men­da­tions. It’s nei­ther an orig­i­nal nor glam­orous idea, but it’s needed be­fore a new sec­re­tary is sad­dled with the same nearly im­pos­si­ble task.

We owe it to James Smith­son and to our­selves af­ter a cen­tury and a half to fi­nally an­swer the ques­tion: What is it? And then: Are we do­ing right by it? The writer is pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion.

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