The Smithsonian Fields The People's Questions

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

At its first-ever public meeting, the regents of the Smithsonian Institution sat around a red-covered table and announced they wanted "a lively dialogue."

The audience did not hold back. The first volley from the public, gathered in an auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History, was essentially this: Why didn't all of you resign, since you are the people who picked the last secretary? The tone of the question implied that the group was responsible for the tenure of Lawrence M. Small, which ended in a scandal and smeared the reputation of the Smithsonian.

Regents Chairman Roger W. Sant repeated what he has said many times before: The board asked its members, "Do we resign or roll up our sleeves?"

This was not exactly how the regents wanted to start, debating their own viability. Yesterday marked the first small step by the Smithsonian's governing body toward reversing the damage done to its reputation by the Small administration. The meeting's purpose was to open up the process to the public, following the Smithsonian's transparency guidelines that were worked out over the past 18 months. The regents' morning business meeting was still private. For the public meeting, they had hoped for input that involved forward-looking ideas, not a focus on past mistakes.

What unfolded was a town-hall-style gathering, with topics zigzagging from the fate of the shuttered Arts and Industries Building to diversity among the regents, staff and exhibitions, to the application of the Freedom of Information Act, and the touchy subject of admission fees. The 565-seat Baird Auditorium was about 80 percent full at the beginning of the two-hour meeting. U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., chancellor of the regents, who was scheduled to run the meeting, was absent because of a family emergency.

With most of the regents facing the audience, it was clear that this is not a group reflecting all the shades of America. Three of the 15 members present are minorities. "We do have specific criteria that relates to diversity," said Shirley Ann Jackson, a scientist who is African American and the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who is Latino, said, there are "many efforts underway" to diversify. The other minority regent is Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, now in his fourth month in the job, announced that he is leading a new executive committee on diversity. "We had made progress, but it has been jagged. Diversity needs to be an effort that pervades the institution," he said.

The meeting occurred when the Smithsonian endowment, which accounts for much of institution's nonrestrictive spending, has dropped sharply. After the meeting, Sant said the endowment is below $800 million, compared with $1 billion in October 2007. "We are pleased we are down less than others, but we are down," he said.

When someone in the audience mentioned fees, the question was greeted with boos. And seconds later, when Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a regent, said he was "resistant to that," applause erupted. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) summed up: "The artifacts belong to taxpayers. We never wanted to charge you to go see your own things." But after a few other topics were raised, John W. McCarter Jr., the newest regent and president of the Field Museum in Chicago, returned to the topic, saying free admission is acceptable as long as the Smithsonian is not "under-investing in the other needs," such as repairs.

An audience member said a plan for the National Zoo that includes overhead trams was "an awful idea," a statement that drew applause from other attendees. Sant said later that the board could hardly hear the questions, and this one got lost around the table. "We can do better" about the technology, Sant said. Besides the questions from the audience, the panel received e-mail questions in real time and answered some that were submitted earlier but which, Clough said, the regents hadn't reviewed.

One question dealt with keeping one museum open one night each week. No one objected to the suggestion, and Clough reported that there have been long lines to get into the Hirshhorn Museum on its late night. He said he is enjoying the late hours at the Reynolds Center. "I jump on the Circulator and am up there in a jiffy," he said, adding a little folksiness to the proceedings.

The regents, established in the 1846 legislation that created the institution, generally oversee Smithsonian business: They approve top appointments, any additions of museums and facilities, and donations to the Smithsonian. The federal portion of the budget is approved by Congress. The board of regents is made up of three members of the U.S. House, three members of the U.S. Senate, the chief justice, the U.S. vice president (who generally doesn't attend the meetings) and nine members of the public.

The regents also fielded this question: How often do they go to the museums? In other words, do you really know how this complex works?

Alan G. Spoon, the managing general partner of Polaris Venture Partners, said they were all "museum rats."

After it was over, the regents defended the format, saying they thought a business meeting would have been boring. Another meeting is scheduled for June, and Sant said they are considering a nighttime forum.

Patricia Q. Stonesifer, senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who is the regents' vice chairman and the incoming chairman, said, "We thought the pent-up demand demanded this array."

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