Smithsonian Inundated With Leaks, GAO Reports

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

"Leak" in Washington usually has one meaning -- the one that raises official ire, triggers internal investigations and sends unnamed sources scampering like roaches when the lights go on.

But when Government Accountability Office analysts reported leaks and other upkeep issues in its infrastructure study of the Smithsonian Institution on Wednesday, they meant it the old-fashioned way -- drip by drip, countered with buckets, towels and mops.

To wit, or wet: A leak at the National Air and Space Museum caused rust on the wing of the first plane to hit Mach 2. Plaster walls are weeping in the Renwick Gallery. Some buildings and exhibits on the Mall and at the National Zoo have closed because of disrepair, and more leaks threaten the Smithsonian's historic collections and irreplaceable objects, the report says.

Cost to fix and maintain the deteriorating facilities over the next nine years? At least $2.3 billion, the Smithsonian estimates -- almost 13 times its current facilities budget.

"The problems are relatively serious given the kinds of repair backlogs the Smithsonian has," says Mark Goldstein, the GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues, who oversaw the study. "They are taking pretty strong steps to deal with the major problems within the confines of their budget. But they can't do as much as they'd like to do."

The Smithsonian's repairs-and-maintenance budget for fiscal year 2004 is $184.4 million of its $904 million operating budget for 18 public museums and galleries, 10 science centers, the zoo and other facilities. There are 660 buildings altogether that display, study and safeguard 143.7 million precious objects and specimens and 166.3 million archived documents and photographs.

"There are not adequate resources to address a fairly profound shortfall in terms of an aging physical plant," says Sheila Burke, the Smithsonian's deputy secretary and chief operating officer, calling the GAO report "quite accurate" and "a fair analysis."

So far, "structural deterioration" and "chronic leaks" have closed some buildings, restricted access to others and damaged some collections, the report says.

Among the casualties are the landmark 1881 Arts and Industries Building on the Mall and the zoo's sloth bear building and birds-of-prey flight cage, which have been shut down pending repairs. The Old Patent Office Building at Seventh and F streets NW, home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, has been closed since 2000 for revitalization for reroofing, but is scheduled to reopen in July 2006.

Some precious objects have also been damaged. At Air and Space, the pioneering Lilienthal Hang Glider that influenced the Wright Brothers' flight designs has been blemished by a leak, and the Douglas Skyrocket D558, the first airplane to break Mach 2, has some visible rust. As stopgaps, Smithsonian conservators have had to drape plastic sheeting over valuable artifacts.

Smithsonian archivists have also grappled with 19 "water emergencies" over three years -- including leaks directly over collections and a drain backup that damaged 200 books at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, which house documents pertaining to the institution's history, leaving some records unreadable, the GAO says.

The National Museum of African Art has sprung leaks over its galleries from holes in the roof and clogged pipes. And the Renwick Gallery, the decorative-arts museum across from the White House, is experiencing a "weeping of the plaster on the gallery walls," produced by fluctuation in temperature and steam problems.

"In terms of leaks, and in terms of repairs that have shut exhibits or come close to damaging artifacts . . . so far the Smithsonian has been pretty lucky, and the mission hasn't been unduly compromised," Goldstein says. "But the day may come when they face bigger problems."

The GAO study says the disrepair isn't because of neglect or mismanagement. The Smithsonian's Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations, which was created in a 2003 reorganization that centralized Smithsonian administration, is strapped by staffing reductions and a tight budget.

GAO analysts recommend that Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small and his brain trust seek "viable funding options" and "alternatives." (Hint: Beg and borrow private funds to fix up the house.)

Public contributions have been raised to construct Smithsonian buildings in the past -- including a third of the cost to build the National Museum of the American Indian and the entire cost to build the Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles. And $25 million in public funds was raised for renovations to cover the Old Patent Office Building's courtyard.

But reroofing? Plumbing? Water pipes and toilet repairs? Not as glamorous for donors.

"We have donors who have been enormously generous," says Burke. "But, frankly, their interest is not plumbing and electrical. Their interest is in helping us to revitalize the public exhibits. . . . They believe plumbing to be a federal responsibility to protect the federal treasures which are our nation's collection."

One option is to reconsider charging an entrance fee to the museums -- which would be a first for the Smithsonian. "Obviously, the public does not pay to enter Smithsonian facilities," says Goldstein, whose report did not make specific recommendations about raising the money. The Smithsonian's board of regents has on several occasions rejected the idea of charging its 20 million visitors a year even a nominal fee.

"We are gifted in that the American public, through tax dollars, support us. Unlike almost every museum in the world, we are open to the public without the impediment of a fee, which to some families, no matter how small, might be a barrier," says Burke, insisting the Smithsonian will continue to depend on private donors and its "friends in Congress and in the administration" for needed support. "We want the nation's treasures accessible to everyone."

Says Goldstein: "They need a way to address funding issues. It is hard to see exactly how they get out of this quickly."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company