Essay

Smithsonian Trades Its Cachet for Cash

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

This week, the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum announced it would be screening the latest Harry Potter movie in its fancy Imax theater -- recently upgraded to 3-D standards at a cost of $1.5 million.

The screening decision had nothing to do with education, or enlightenment, or any of the other grand ideals public museums have always been built around. Instead, it falls into the "no-brainer category," according to a manager in the terrifyingly named Business Ventures branch of the Smithsonian.

He sure was right: Not a bit o' brain in sight.

Of course, he was talking about the screening's moneymaking potential, not its role in the museum's mission. It's true that the Smithsonian doesn't get all the money it needs from the federal government. But no one is even pretending that this is about anything other than getting as much cash as possible, as quickly as possible.

"Harry Potter" doesn't even have the tiny science tie-in that "Apollo 13" or "Star Wars" could claim when they were screened at Air and Space. (Note to curators: Harry Potter is a wizard ; his aeronautic broomsticks work by magic .)

Of course, if the Smithsonian bigwigs have really decided that money can be front and center in how they fill their spaces -- that they don't have to offer experiences that are any better or more uplifting, or even very different, from what we can get anywhere else -- then all sorts of options open up.

Here are dynamite ideas for getting money flooding into other museums that advertise the Smithsonian brand.

The Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian art : Another "no-brainer." Curators should set aside space for the same "genuine Oriental massage and body rub" advertised at some local strip malls. It might just lure in some of the Smithsonian's overstressed congressional sponsors: A bit of lunchtime "relaxation" could only do them good. Maybe the museum could even open late when the Senate is in session, for those late-night, post-filibuster rubdowns the gossip columns write about.

The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture: The real money in Anacostia is in real estate. The whole museum needs to become a high-rise condo building with show units decorated with historic artifacts, available in limited-edition facsimiles to the first 20 tenants.

The National Museum of the American Indian: Wild West shows are always popular. For an extra historical note, you could re-create Buffalo Bill's own spectacle, complete with "Indian Warfare depicted in true collors," as one of his handbills put it. (Or maybe not: Sounds too much like some kind of boring old history lesson.)

The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum: It had a show about boutique hotels. Make it one. It's on Fifth Avenue, after all. New York always needs more rooms.

The Hirshhorn Museum: It's already doughnut-shaped. Sell naming rights to Krispy Kreme; have Richard Serra design a new cruller for them.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum: It's across the street from MCI Center. Fill it with Jumbotrons to take spillover crowds from Wizards games and Marilyn Manson concerts. That's real American art for you.

The National Museum of Natural History: The Hall of Mammals could become the Hall of Supplements, selling all-natural herbal remedies culled from nature's rarest habitats.

The National Portrait Gallery: It's under renovation, so there's a unique opportunity to re-imagine things. How about making room for a "First Ladies' Hair Salon"? The "George Washington Denture Clinic"? "Spiro Agnew Tax Consultants Inc."?

The National Postal Museum: Rent it out as a FedEx depot.

Or maybe they should simply sell the whole Smithsonian to the highest bidder. If the place is going to give up on ideas and values in favor of "business ventures," that one would top them all.


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