By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006
A member of Congress yesterday urged the Smithsonian Institution to begin charging admission. The museum complex has been free for 160 years.
The suggestion, by Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), came during congressional hearings at which a Smithsonian official said the complex is crumbling because there is not enough money for critical repairs.
"Personally, I don't understand why we don't charge a fee," said Moran, a member of the appropriations panel that approves Smithsonian funding.
He said $1 a person would be reasonable.
With the large amount of money the Smithsonian needs for operations and repairs and the mounting demands on congressional funds, Moran said, "every year it becomes harder to justify. If you have 25 million visitors, that would be $25 million."
In response, Sheila Burke, the second-ranking official at the Smithsonian, said the idea had been considered and rejected three times by the Smithsonian Board of Regents. The last discussion was in 2002. "A fee might hit people we want to attract -- families," said Burke, the Smithsonian's deputy secretary and chief operating officer.
Burke said one reason for the previous rejections was the "excitement" visitors felt at the idea of free public museums.
She also noted that four museums are legally forbidden from charging. The laws that created the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden prohibit admission fees. In addition, Charles Lang Freer's will, which provided for the creation of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, stated there could never be a charge.
Yesterday's hearing was the first time in four years that the appropriations subcommittee has met to hear arguments for increased money for repairs. In the proposed fiscal 2007 plan submitted by the president, the Smithsonian would receive $644.4 million, an increase of $30 million over the current year.
"The deteriorated infrastructure is clearly the most significant challenge the 160-year-old institution faces," Burke said. This year's proposed budget earmarks $51 million for repairs, but Burke said the institutional actually needed $94 million a year to erase the backlog of repairs. She also said another priority was changing the "quite outdated" exhibitions.
The conditions at the National Zoo are a particular concern to both the representatives and the Smithsonian.
M. John Barry, the new director of the zoo, said some of the systems at the zoo date from its opening in 1889. Overall, Barry said, the zoo could use $225 million to update all buildings and systems.
"The veterinary hospital doesn't have a sprinkler system," he said. Only four of the zoo's dozens of buildings have sprinkler systems. The water main system dates from the 1940s and needs extensive work, Barry said. There are 100 hydrants on the sprawling property but if there were a fire, the zoo would have to shut off water to the animal pools to increase pressure in the hydrants. Also, some electrical boxes are still using fuses, he said.
Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), the subcommittee chairman, asked about the final costs of the renovation at the Patent Office Building, which will reopen in July. The renovation cost $298 million. The building is home to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Burke said the delays in the installation of the glass canopy and the building of a staircase on F Street would cost an additional $25 million to $30 million.
The panel was curious about why the regents decided to invest some of the Smithsonian's private endowment in hedge funds. "That sounds like taking the family piggy bank to the track," Moran said.
Burke said the regents chose that investment strategy after consultation with financial advisers. "We have a $779 million endowment," Burke said, adding that the advisers suggested diversification and the regents invested 12 percent of the total in the hedge funds. "I admire them for risk-taking," Moran said.