Smithsonian’s ‘Made in America’ mandate not easy to achieve

April 16, 2011

Virginia craftsman Byron Whitehurst designs the polystone busts of American presidents that line the shelves of a gift shop at the National Museum of American History. Priced at $20 each, the trinkets are a favorite among tourists, who buy about 1,200 a year.

But that was before a visiting senator picked up one of Whitehurst’s busts and noticed a small tag proclaiming “Made in China.” His angry reaction touched off a firestorm that has forced the Smithsonian to clear its shelves of many souvenirs and rethink how it stocks its popular gift shops.

Come July, Whitehurst’s lower-priced products — designed in Virginia but made in China — will no longer be sold at the third-floor gift shop near the history museum’s American Presidents exhibit. The Smithsonian Institution is converting the shop to sell only American-made products, an experiment that may mean higher prices for consumers but could pave the way for similar “Buy American” efforts at other Smithsonian shops.

The change is far from easy. Foreign manufacturers produce many of the most popular items at Smithsonian shops, including American flag pins and coffee mugs bearing an image of the Washington Monument. Illustrated maps of Washington are designed in Britain, postcards of the Smithsonian Castle are from South Korea, and the tag on a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt says “Made in Honduras.”

“It’s challenging to get the range of products that we want to offer that will appeal to our visitors and to buy them in the USA, because they’re not produced here,” said Peter Gibbons, who leads the team that is making product selections for the Price of Freedom shop.

Tourists, typically, are not big spenders. Smithsonian customers spend an average of $20 at the gift shops, with most individual purchases averaging about $3. After a long search, Gibbons found a small Utah company that makes presidential busts that are similar to Whitehurst’s, so those will soon replace the Chinese-made presidential figures.

Whitehurst said he thinks the effort is misguided. “They’re hurting small businessmen like me. There’s nobody in the U.S. that’s going to get a job because they forced the Smithsonian to get ‘Made in America’ products,” he said.

Smithsonian gift shops generate about $9 million in annual revenue — a respectable sum, but hardly enough to persuade manufacturing firms to move back to the 50 states, hire American workers and help reduce the unemployment rate.

“We’re not 100 percent sure the Smithsonian can solve that problem, with all due respect,” said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

The call for change began when Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a big history museum fan, went shopping there last year for Christmas gifts for his granddaughters. He was outraged to discover that many items, including Whitehurst’s wares, had been made in China.

“It seems to me that when we have lost millions and millions of good manufacturing jobs, that a museum owned by the people of the United States, speaking to our own history, should be selling among other things statuettes of our national leaders made in the United States,” Sanders said in an interview.

He issued an ultimatum to Smithsonian bosses: Either sell more American-made items or risk losing billions in federal funding.

Motivated by reports of Sanders’s efforts, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.), ranking Democrat on a committee overseeing Smithsonian construction funds, also drafted legislation that would withhold money for museum construction if Smithsonian gift shops didn’t convert to domestic-made goods. He called the Smithsonian’s buying practices an “insult to American workers.”

Museum officials announced their gift shop overhaul days later.

For craftsmen like Whitehurst, the changes ignore the realities of the American marketplace.

“When I started in this business, most of the products were made in the USA,” Whitehurst said. But most of his U.S. suppliers closed or moved overseas as they faced soaring labor costs and new federal environmental and labor regulations. He had to go overseas, too, to stay open.

“If I bring a product to a customer that’s manufactured in the USA, but it costs 30 or 40 percent more to a comparable product that might be made in another country, unfortunately, most of the time, I’m not going to get the business,” he said.

Whitehurst employs about 35 people in Virginia, including designers, product development specialists, support staff and warehouse personnel. Although his less expensive products are made in China, Whitehurst has premium and personalized products that are made in the United States but typically cost as much as $30 and are only offered at a few stores. Even though the Smithsonian is dropping him, Whitehurst said his gifts will still be sold at the National Cathedral, U.S. Supreme Court and Statue of Liberty.

Sanders vows to press on despite Whitehurst’s objections.

“The American people want the opportunity to purchase made-in-America products, and I will do everything I can to see that that happens,” he said.

Similar purchasing policies exist at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, where a spokeswoman said that gift shop managers select American products and that vendors must provide proof that their goods are made in the United States. (Whitehurst said he also sells some of his Virginia-made goods to the Capitol.) A National Park Service spokesman said its concessionaires are encouraged to sell domestic gifts and locally grown foods. If products are no longer produced here, concessionaires must partner with U.S.-owned wholesalers.

Although almost 50 percent of the gifts sold at the three history museum gifts shops are made domestically, Gibbons said 100 percent compliance could never happen: The popular personalized military dog tags are made in Taiwan, most magnets are made in China and many products assembled in the United States have foreign packaging, prohibiting a “Made in the USA” label.

No such label adorned the Christmas gifts Sanders eventually bought at the museum.

He got his two granddaughters matching “Rosie the Riveter” lunchboxes.

Where were they made? China.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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