Castle in Disrepair

By Robert Sullivan
Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Smithsonian has just awakened from a leadership nightmare. On this groggy morning after, it finds itself soiled by commercialism, Disneyfication and politicization, and sorely in need of a meticulous scrubbing.

Supporters of now-departed secretary Lawrence M. Small have characterized the former banking executive's tenure at the Smithsonian's helm as a "clash of cultures," positing crisp, data-based corporate values on Small's side and airy, ivory-tower academic values on the other. Nothing is further from the truth. The Smithsonian is blessed with competent, high-performing staff who have been misled and disrespected by a dysfunctional bureaucracy and misguided decision-making. All of this was orchestrated by Small and his administration after he became the Smithsonian's 11th secretary in 2000.

The questionable deals and values of the Business Ventures Unit that Small promoted have tainted and compromised the Smithsonian without generating any significant increases in income over the past seven years. An obsession with protecting congressional support and appropriations led to the censoring of exhibitions and the avoidance of "controversial" topics, while the desire to create a high-volume tourist destination meant that content was dumbed down and interpretive themes were oversimplified.

Consider these recent failures: The inflated attendance and income projections used to justify the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center -- the National Air and Space Museum's companion facility near Dulles International Airport that opened in late 2003 -- were woefully optimistic, and the resulting income shortfall has become a financial strain on the institution. The confusing, light-on-content exhibits of the Museum of the American Indian have failed to sustain public interest; attendance has sunk by 50 percent since the museum opened in 2004. The American Art Museum finally opened last year -- two years behind schedule and $30 million over budget. The National Museum of American History is closed for renovation, but the lack of money means that upgrades planned for its exhibits are at severe risk.

This past decade has not been a clash of cultures, but a crisis of competence at the top of the Smithsonian.

When Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian and arguably the foremost American scientist of the 19th century, balked at leaving his position at Princeton in 1846 to lead the fledgling institution, his friend Alexander Dallas Bache wrote to him: "Science triumphs in you my dear friend & come you must. Redeem Washington. Save this great National Institution from the hands of charlatans. . . . You have a name which must go down to History as the great founder of a great Institution. The first Secretary of the American Institute."

Henry did come, understanding that the Smithsonian was to be an international symbol of America's cultural commitment to scholarship and learning. In my 16 years at the institution, I was stunned by how many international cultural leaders came here to learn how to import the idea of the Smithsonian to their capitals -- the idea of a symbol of national pride and identity free and open to tens of millions of visitors to enjoy annually.

Those of us inside the Beltway tend to take the Smithsonian for granted and lose sight of its true scope as a national and international asset. But it's time for Congress and the Smithsonian's Board of Regents to take the institution and its role as an American icon seriously again, to honor the legacy of leadership that characterized the first secretaries.

Congress should cease using its budgetary clout to politicize the Smithsonian and prevent its scholars from speaking with clarity and courage about the key issues of our time, such as global warming and human rights. Exhibition scripts must now be edited by the Smithsonian's public relations office before they are formally approved. Exhibit openings are delayed and content is toned down to avoid conflict with administration policies. This self-editing and censorship will have to cease if the Smithsonian is to regain its reputation and public standing as an academically free source of trustworthy, high-quality content.

The regents, meanwhile, must take their stewardship and governance role seriously. It was the Smithsonian's reputation and integrity as a center of research and learning that enabled the fundraising success of the past decade -- not the persuasive powers of Larry Small. It is the respect and affection that donors have for that serious mission and purpose that motivates most of them to give. But this priceless cultural capital has been squandered in the scandals of the past seven years.

The Smithsonian operates in the gift economy, not the market economy. The values and behavior of the secretary and the regents should embody the values of that not-for-profit world. The regents need to recruit and appoint a person of integrity who will restore the image and scholarly standards of the Smithsonian, along with the trust of the public and Congress.

The Smithsonian needs a leader who will restore the confidence of a demoralized staff, reassure hesitant donors that the institution's integrity and values are secure, and encourage its scholars to speak with clarity and courage on controversial issues. None of the in-house candidates mentioned as possible successors to Small has, in my view, the capacity or experience to accomplish this. The academic landscape, however, is peppered with charismatic leaders of substance, vision and imagination who have led successful capital campaigns for fractious organizations without compromising their standards and academic freedom. Such a leader can be brought to the Smithsonian. Merely reorganizing the existing players will not do. The Smithsonian needs to be reinvented.

The institution's scientists are conducting critical research in areas of vital importance to contemporary society. Whether it is the degradation of coral reefs or the deterioration of habitats and species loss, these scientists have to be able to speak with courage and conviction about their research and its consequences. An institution of substance and ideas must be allowed to say dangerous things and engage the public candidly in an open forum.

This educational responsibility has not been honored in recent Smithsonian history. One example: In a recent reorganization of the Public Programs Office at the National Museum of Natural History, where I worked, the Office of Museum Education, the critical link between the scientists, the collections and school and family audiences, was replaced with the more tourist-friendly Office of Visitor Services. But the museum was on the verge of opening its new Ocean Hall, which includes ambitious educational components. Eliminating the education office was a critical management error.

The next secretary will have to take the Smithsonian's educational mandate seriously. The Smithsonian's collections, working scientists and global research stations represent an untapped resource for improving science education on a national level at this time of urgent educational need. That immense potential has remained dormant under the current Smithsonian administration.

The next secretary will also have to be a savvy behind-the-scenes congressional negotiator, but it will really be his or her commitment to uncompromising standards of content that will generate support from the public and Congress. Increased congressional appropriations for the core research and educational mission of the Smithsonian have been marginal over the past decade and promise to be marginal in the future. The base federal budget eroded steadily under the Small administration. Recent increases in congressional allocations have been motivated chiefly by members' shame over the shabby condition of the museum buildings on the Mall, within plain sight of their constituents. Congressional commitment to rectifying so many problems of the institution -- the tragic condition of many collections, deteriorating staffing levels, aged exhibitions, the underdeveloped Web site and more -- was not generated under Small.

In selecting the next secretary, the regents must think on a scale that reflects the importance of the Smithsonian not only within America's intellectual and cultural landscape, but also as the leading museum and research complex in the world.

Ironically, when I called the Smithsonian Archives for the Bache quote used above, I was told that the Joseph Henry Papers project -- a critical historical and scholarly project to index and publish all of the first secretary's correspondence -- has been discontinued, yet another sad cultural casualty of the Small administration.

Robert Sullivan, former associate director for public programs of the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, is vice president of Chora,

a museum consulting firm in Washington.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company