What Is the Smithsonian?
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.