Everyone knows that the Smithsonian Institution has money problems.
Recently, Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) suggested that the Smithsonian Institution charge $1 for admission. Moran estimated that this would “raise” $25 million a year. The Smithsonian has desparately tried to find creative ways to bring in cash, including the sad sale of (effectively) first-rights to our nation’s film collection — including documentary footage — to a subsidiary of CBS Corp. “History’s just been made for sale to an inside deal,” said documentary producer Ken Burns.
These are dim-witted, stop-gap measures that fail to address the Smithsonian’s substantial needs. According to a 2005 General Accounting Office report, the Smithsonian needs at least $2.3 billion for facilities costs over the next seven years. That would cover routine building-related costs, anti-terrorism protection, as well as an alarming $1.4 billion in scheduled and deferred maintenance on existing buildings. It does not include construction costs for the new African-American history and culture museum, to be built on the Mall.
These are not projects that can wait — nor should they. Last year GAO found “major structural deterioration” in Smithsonian buildings and “chronic leaks” that have damaged our nation’s collections. At least two historic aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum have been damaged by leaks and Smithsonian staff have faced at least 19 “water emergencies.” Several buildings are rife with mold. Water has flowed into the galleries at the National Museum of African Art and at the Renwick, Freer and Sackler Galleries. In the year since the GAO report was released, the Hirshhorn has battled water issues as well. Water is death for art and for historic objects.
Given the alarming state of Smithsonian facilities, the question that Congress should be addressing isn’t whether or not the Smithsonian could get away with a tiny admissions charge or whether one film deal should spawn an uproar, it is whether we’re going to have a national museum at all. If museums that save and share the American story in history, science, art, and culture, are worth having, then Congress should make sure that have the infrastructure necessary to safeguard the nation’s heritage.
Unfortunately, given the water buckets on view on the floors of several Smithsonian museums, all indications are that Congress is willing to watch the Smithsonian fall apart from the inside out. Worse: There is no ongoing public or legislative conversation about the value of a national museum — just half-brained suggestions that avoid honest discussions of obvious problems.
Unwilling to wait for Congress to pony up, the Smithsonian has responded to legislative indifference by transforming itself into a museo-front for corporate and private America. The deal with CBS’ Showtime Networks isn’t the Smithsonian’s only questionable cash-grab. In recent months Boeing has given the National Air and Space Museum $15 million and a private foundation has given the Smithsonian $45 million for the renovation of the building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery — and in so doing has the name of its benefactor on the ‘center’ that houses two national museums. The Smithsonian’s museums should not be on naming-rights par with, say, a Tulsa basketball arena.
Our national museum is disappearing. It is being turned into a series of monuments to American corporations and to private wealth, a process that shows no sign of slowing. I think there are educational and cultural benefits to America telling its own story, to showing its own art, to presenting its heritage to the world. Instead Congress is allowing the Smithsonian to become something else, a place where the Fortune 500 dominates and where private wealth determines what parts of our story should be told.