Norton to Samper: What, Butterflies Aren't Free?

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) pounded away at the Smithsonian Institution yesterday, telling an official he had to find fresh resources for revenue and not start charging admission. All the Smithsonian's Washington museums are free.

Norton said a Smithsonian plan to charge $5 for admission to a butterfly exhibit scheduled to open in November at the Museum of Natural History could be the start of a very bad trend.

"The difficulty I have is that it is setting a precedent. It is either a policy or not a policy," said Norton, the chair of a House subcommittee that oversees federal buildings. She added that Congress had not given enough financial support to the museum. "We have under-funded every institution . . . but I don't believe the alternative is to go down the road to fees for service."

Cristián Samper, the acting Smithsonian secretary and former head of Natural History, said the butterfly exhibit was very expensive. "The annual cost is $900,000," said Samper. The money goes for frequent replacement of the butterflies, which have a short lifespan, and their breeding. The science exhibition will be financed privately at a cost of $3 million, and only the temperature-controlled enclosure will have an admission. "Our basic budget is not enough to support the butterfly house," Samper said.

Norton said the Smithsonian has always been free and should remain so and that endowments should be established for specific programs. Samper said an endowment for the butterfly room would have to be around $20 million to produce interest and dividends of $1 million each year.

"I want to work with you to find the first million dollars in this region. This is one of America's upscale regions, full of all kinds of technology, full of McMansions and full of lobbyists." Norton said. She said there was probably "somebody out there who would do a good deed, not for you, but for schoolchildren."

Samper became acting secretary 12 weeks ago when Lawrence M. Small resigned over reports about his expenses and a housing allowance. Among other things, Small ran up $90,000 in questionable expenses. The Smithsonian's Board of Regents then approved those expenses. Norton said she was alarmed the regents approved them "after the fact."

She requested documents about the regents' actions about the $90,000 in questionable expenditures and the role of the regents' attorney on that decision.

"The backdated oversight I should say to you is troublesome. It does not relieve the board of regents of their responsibility," she said.

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