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GAO Faults Smithsonian Upkeep and Security
Leaks and Vandalism Threaten Collections

By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

Deteriorating Smithsonian facilities have damaged historic airplanes, threatened collections and resulted in the leakage of tens of millions of gallons of water at National Zoo enclosures, while cuts in security staff have exposed artifacts in the institution's 18 museums to vandalism and theft, the Government Accountability Office reported yesterday.

A backlog of construction and maintenance projects at the Smithsonian has ballooned to $2.5 billion, the GAO said, in part because Smithsonian officials insist that most facility repairs and upgrades be paid for through federal appropriations and not private money. The government provides 70 percent of the Smithsonian's money -- $715 million last year.

Those facility problems have forced a museum director to occasionally shut down galleries and left some staff at an art gallery scrambling each day to find new drips, while underground leaks at the National Zoo's sea lion and seal pools have caused 110,000 gallons of water a day to flow into storm drains. That's more than 40 million gallons of water a year at an annual cost of $297,000. Repairs this year have reduced the leakage from what had been 140,000 gallons of water a day, the GAO said, and efforts to plug the remaining leaks are underway, a Smithsonian spokeswoman said.

"There is no question that the $2.5 billion facilities requirement is one of the most important challenges the Smithsonian faces," acting Secretary Cristi┬┐n Samper wrote in his response, which was attached to the report. "We must not lose sight, however, of the need to continue advancements and improvements in our programs as well, an area in which our donors have been extraordinarily generous."

The number of security officers has steadily declined since May 2003 even though the Smithsonian has opened new museums, resulting in fewer officers to cover more space, the GAO said. At times, security alarms would ring, but guards would be unavailable to check on them. Guards once assigned to cover a single gallery must now cover two.

The museums suffered 35 cases of vandalism between 2005 and August this year. Last November, officials discovered that someone had popped open older exhibit cases and stolen several mammalian fossils at the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said she did not know the value of the fossils.

St. Thomas said an outside firm has been hired to determine if the number of guards is adequate.

Two Smithsonian officials told the GAO of "alarming 'near misses' -- events related to inadequate facilities that could have been catastrophic," including a leak a year ago at the Sackler Gallery that would have destroyed $500 million in loaned artwork if the deluge had occurred while the art was stored there.

The leak was caused by problems with the steam system for the complex of underground buildings near the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. "Museum officials stated that staff must routinely spend time each morning searching for new leaks in order to move or cover collections to keep them safe," the report said. "Several officials emphasized they have been lucky to avoid major damage to the collections thus far."

A daytime fire last year at the zoo's invertebrate house and reptile center "did not set off a smoke alarm and could have burned down the entire building," the report found. Because it happened during regular work hours, the blaze was discovered by staff in time. The fire alerted zoo Director John Berry to the lack of fire sprinklers in most buildings, as well as inferior hydrants and "the potentially disastrous consequences of a fire at the National Zoo to facilities and the animals living in them," investigators said. "Inadequate fire protection systems throughout much of the National Zoo threaten the zoo's collections overall."

To prevent damage from leaks, sheets of plastic have been stretched over shelves to protect National Museum of the American Indian artifacts that were stored at Cultural Resources Center in Suitland. Among the items under cover are an Eskimo kayak from Greenland and a rare Yahgan dugout canoe from Tierra del Fuego.

The report, an update of a 2005 audit done at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the institution, criticizes the Smithsonian for insisting that federal appropriations pay for the upgrades.

The GAO review follows reports in The Washington Post earlier this year that former secretary Lawrence M. Small received $1.15 million in housing allowances over a six-year period, which included a $5,700 bill from a contractor to patch a roof, repair a skylight and redo walls in Small's house. Small later resigned.

The GAO report, written by Mark Goldstein of the congressional agency's physical infrastructure office, found damage to aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum's storage facilities in Suitland, where large doors that do not seal are permitting rain to seep inside. Corrosion to these historic airplanes increased the cost of restoring them, museum officials told the GAO.

To address the facilities backlog, the regents went to President Bush last year to request $100 million a year for 10 years; in response to the plea, Bush proposed a $44 million boost for the Smithsonian in 2008 over the 2007 appropriation.

Feinstein has told Smithsonian officials that it is unrealistic to count on federal funding for the upgrades and has urged them to find alternative funding. The GAO report suggests that the Smithsonian should dip into unrestricted trust funds, which account for 6 percent ($58 million in 2006) of the institution's budget.

Investigators also learned that the Smithsonian Board of Regents briefly considered shutting down museums one or two days a week to save money, or imposing entrance fees. The board rejected both ideas. The GAO report criticized the cursory consideration of those proposals, which, in addition to a national "Save America's Treasures" fundraising drive, are back on the table, a Smithsonian spokeswoman said yesterday.

"It is clear that without a comprehensive plan to raise private funds to address these issues the Smithsonian facilities will continue to decline, putting the treasures in its collection at great risk," Feinstein wrote in a letter this week to the regents. Feinstein had requested the review in light of reports about former secretary Small's compensation and expenses.

In reply to Feinstein's letter, Roger Sant, chairman of the Smithsonian regents, wrote Feinstein, "I regret that your reading of the draft report led you to such negative conclusions. In my view, much of the report was very positive." Sant cited improvements at the National Zoo, the reopening of the old Patent Office that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

"While the GAO rightly points out an unfortunate decrease in the number of security guards at certain museums, I want to stress that our overall security record is commendable," Sant said. The GAO report said some facility improvements had been made.

Three museum directors said their museums have experienced increased rates of vandalism because of the lack of security officers patrolling galleries. At the newly reopened American Art Museum, vandals wrote on an exhibit, and at the National Portrait Gallery, visitors spit on or kissed a few pieces of artwork. The vandalism stopped when a security camera was installed nearby .

Two museum directors said it has become more difficult for them to borrow artifacts because "lenders have expressed concern with the lack of protection."

Communication between security officers and museums is poor and often directors are not told how many guards will be reporting to duty from day to day, the GAO said. One museum director told investigators he once had an emergency to report, but could not find a security guard. He went to an established post, but it was vacant. The shortages delayed emergency response, the report said. The early GAO findings about security concerns prompted the Smithsonian to hire college students as gallery attendants this summer.

At Air and Space's flagship museum on the Mall, inadequate electrical systems have forced occasional closure of galleries to visitors, the museum's director, Jack Dailey, told the GAO. Installed in 1975, the electrical systems are obsolete, and complete replacement is needed to avoid outages. Spokeswoman St. Thomas said that a contractor has now been hired to make the repairs.

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