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Smithsonian--'Nations Attic'--Leaking Badly

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An article in (what else?) the Washington Post, Jim Grimaldi outlines the decline and fall of yet another American institution.
  • Free speech? No, the corporate and media giants have already co-opted that one.
  • Freedom of the press and an independent media? Sorry, that was bought while we were busy at the mall, by an Australian billionaire. 
  • Then, it’s gotta be our right to be left the hell alone in our own homes. Uh, uh. That most cherished of our rights was the first casualty of the War on Drugs.
The institution of which I speak is not philosophical, but actual bricks and mortar—the Smithsonian, “an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its shops and its magazine.” Commonly called the nation’s attic—a sort of Hubble telescope of our historic past, it’s in trouble.
Deteriorating Smithsonian facilities have damaged historic airplanes, threatened collections and resulted in the leakage of tens of millions of gallons of water at National Zoo enclosures, while cuts in security staff have exposed artifacts in the institution's 18 museums to vandalism and theft, the Government Accountability Office reported yesterday.

A backlog of construction and maintenance projects at the Smithsonian has ballooned to $2.5 billion, the GAO said, in part because Smithsonian officials insist that most facility repairs and upgrades be paid for through federal appropriations and not private money. The government provides 70 percent of the Smithsonian's money -- $715 million last year.

Not to worry—the Congress will not let this happen. Those who stand up every day in the halls of the House and Senate, shaking a righteous finger in the defense of our most precious freedoms, will ride like the cavalry to the rescue. It is, after all, a miniscule number, an amount required to fund less than a week of war.
 
Infrastructure, that buzz-word of just a few months back, graven into the imagery of our minds by the disaster of bridge collapse in Minneapolis, is still on the tip of our political tongue. What more precious example of the nation’s collective infrastructure is there than the ‘Smith'?’ Just ask Dianne Feinstein, frenetic Senator from California.
Feinstein has told Smithsonian officials that it is unrealistic to count on federal funding for the upgrades and has urged them to find alternative funding. The GAO report suggests that the Smithsonian should dip into unrestricted trust funds, which account for 6 percent ($58 million in 2006) of the institution's budget.
C’mon, Dianne. You expect a decades-long shortfall in major long term maintenance needs to be made up by increasing entry fees to school-kids and sucking harder on the gift-shop straw? That’s like Minneapolis building a toll bridge, except that the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota isn’t the treasure-trove of America.
 
Feinstein’s hard line is particularly offensive in the face of a recent Wall Street Journal article that tags Dianne for a $4 billion earmark for her Hollywood friends. Her heart may be in San Francisco, but she’s going to make sure taxpayers leave four billion in the woods of Holly, a kind of gifty-giveaway to her already rich local buddies. Protecting their ‘view’ is part of the justification and there’s no suggestion from Dianne to dip into any Hollywood unrestricted trust funds.

Part of the sniping at the Smith is their own foolish fault. They hired a bozo by the name of Larry Small, who had been CEO of the Federal National Mortgage Association. That should have been a tip-off, but wasn’t.

Small bamboozled a salary in excess of $700,000, got a housing allowance of $1.5 million and then went to work renovating the house and his office. Unworried about leaks in the museum roofs, he and his wife flew 1st class at Smithsonian expense and he (quite properly) angered Congress by doing all this as the institution declined.

But hey, compared to the thievery and excess Congress continues to fund in Iraq every single day, the Smithsonian needs are small-potatoes and unlike the war, they matter to America.
A backlog of construction and maintenance projects at the Smithsonian has ballooned to $2.5 billion, the GAO said, in part because Smithsonian officials insist that most facility repairs and upgrades be paid for through federal appropriations and not private money.
Officials insist on that because it’s easier to get contributions for new acquisitions and facilities than it is for tarring a roof or digging a new storm-drain. Same for personnel. “Would you care to contribute $2 million to salaries for our guards?” Thought not.
The number of security officers has steadily declined since May 2003 even though the Smithsonian has opened new museums, resulting in fewer officers to cover more space, the GAO said. At times, security alarms would ring, but guards would be unavailable to check on them. Guards once assigned to cover a single gallery must now cover two.

The museums suffered 35 cases of vandalism between 2005 and August this year. Last November, officials discovered that someone had popped open older exhibit cases and stolen several mammalian fossils at the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said she did not know the value of the fossils. St. Thomas said an outside firm has been hired to determine if the number of guards is adequate.

St. Thomas needed an outside firm for that. No wonder some in the Congress are wondering if anyone knows how to run the show. I’ll give you a clue, Linda—no charge. If you have
  • more museum space opening and
  • fewer and fewer guards and 
  • stuff is beginning to get vandalized and stolen,
it’s a pretty good guess that the number of guards in not adequate.
Two Smithsonian officials told the GAO of "alarming 'near misses' -- events related to inadequate facilities that could have been catastrophic," including a leak a year ago at the Sackler Gallery that would have destroyed $500 million in loaned artwork if the deluge had occurred while the art was stored there.

The leak was caused by problems with the steam system for the complex of underground buildings near the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. "Museum officials stated that staff must routinely spend time each morning searching for new leaks in order to move or cover collections to keep them safe," the report said. "Several officials emphasized they have been lucky to avoid major damage to the collections thus far."

Major museums have no business being run by snarky politicos who come from the contributor crowd. There is probably no more major museum in the world than the Smithsonian, with nineteen separate facilities and a zoo. It has eight research centers and includes sites in New York City, Virginia, Panama, and elsewhere, with over 142 million items in its collections.

It deserves a major-league curator to run the show and crank up donations.

Deals such as the recent CBS/Showtime Networks agreement only cheapen the product. But while Feinstein’s committee figures out how to punish this behavior and threaten that malfeasance, it might look first to cleaning up its own act. Stripping the funding while the roof falls in and priceless exhibits become worthless, is almost as foolish as . . . as
 
. . . earmarks to the Hollywood rich or pounding money into the rat-hole that is Blackwater.
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Media comment;

 

http://www.jim-freeman.com

Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
 

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