A sure way to win over the congressional panel that controls most of your budget is to give them a rare look at priceless artifacts of history.
Officials of the Smithsonian, facing the Republican-led appropriations subcommittee for the first time Thursday, are pros at this strategy. They brought Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch, which has resided at the Smithsonian since 1958, and a camera used by former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn on the Friendship 7 voyage in 1962.
The panel was duly impressed but Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the subcommittee chairman, got right down to the business of the budget. This year, he said, was going to be “particularly challenging” because the Interior bill which funds the Smithsonian and other cultural agencies was decreased by $2 billion.
The Obama administration requested $861.5 million in fiscal 2012 for the Smithsonian, most of which goes to salaries and expenses but includes $125 million to begin construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The $500 million for the African American museum is a public/private partnership, with Congress contributing half. In response to a question about deferring some of the federal payments, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said, “It is important to keep it on track.” He said the private fund-raising was making “great success.”
Overall Clough said the Smithsonian had raised $158 million privately last year.
The committee discussed the recommendation by a presidential commission to build a Smithsonian American Latino Museum.
Saying he was “concerned about the direction we are taking at the Smithsonian,” Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) said he was also worried “we are breaking up the American narrative” and feared racial groups would go to their own museums.
Last week’s report concluded that if Congress approved a Latino Museum it should be administrated by the Smithsonian on a location just south of the Capitol. The Smithsonian responded that if a plan was approved, it would welcome the museum into the Smithsonian family.
At Thursday’s hearing Clough indicated he supported everyone telling their own story. “The Smithsonian didn’t do a good job in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to broaden,” its outreach, he said. “We missed the boat.”
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) said the need for a Latino or African American museum was the fault of the people who wrote the history which excluded their Latino and African American accomplishments. “We were left out,” he said, “and in a perfect world I don’t want the Latin Grammys. In a perfect world I want to make sure we walk in and see our story.”