The Smithsonian Institution has set up a committee to find out why so few blacks, Hispanics and Asians are among the 20 million Americans who visit the museums on the Mall each year.
"It's evident the Smithsonian appeals to the traditional audience--WASP, white, educated," said committee cochairman Edward F. Rivinus, a senior editor at the Smithsonian Press. "Nonetheless, there are plenty of black educated and Hispanic educated people --I'm not talking about the ghetto--in a position to enjoy what we have to offer.
"We want to find out what the problem is and what we can do about it."
The committee, established in February, consists of 12 members from inside and outside the Smithsonian staff. It has met twice so far, but has no timetable for concluding its work.
John R. Kinard, a committee member and director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, said one reason blacks don't visit in large numbers is because the Smithsonian's professional staff has few blacks. He said a special office should be set up to locate and hire black museum professionals.
"People are not going to insult themselves by going to a place that does not respect them. Where they don't see themselves, they don't visit," said Kinard. The Anacostia museum was set up by the Smithsonian 16 years ago to appeal to local blacks.
Only seven of the 353 key Smithsonian scholars and specialists who mount exhibits in the Mall museums--or 2 percent of that staff--are black, according to Will Douglas Jr., director of the Smithsonian's equal opportunity office. The professional staff as a whole, 617 people, is less than 4 percent black.
On the other hand, Douglas said, 76 percent of the guards, 55 percent of craftsmen and carpenters and 36 percent of the clerical staff are black.
"The higher you go the worse it gets," he said.
Rivinus said visitor statistics are not kept by race, but officials know "by observation" that minorities are not visiting the Mall museums in large numbers.
He said large numbers of minorities do visit the National Zoo, a Smithsonian operation, and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.
"We're far from lily white, but it seems to me we ought to make some special efforts," said Undersecretary Phillip S. Hughes, second-in-command to Smithsonian chief S. Dillon Ripley.
Hughes asked Rivinus to establish the committee early this year after the institution's top brass met to discuss minority hiring. He said Ripley knew of the committee and "blessed it."
Bernice Reagon, director of programs in black American culture at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, was named cochairman of the committee. A spokesman for her office said yesterday she was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Rivinus, a retired Foreign Service officer who has worked at the Smithsonian for 12 years, said he became sensitive to the problem when his duties put him in touch with Kinard at the Anacostia museum.
Rivinus said he realized there had not been "a sincere Smithsonian interest in black Americans because basically the people who ran the Smithsonian were like me. They didn't have any appreciation that many people see the world through different colored glasses. They're involved in their role of projecting the American image, as they see it, which some people don't share."
Other committee members include Mildred Bautista, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; Madelyn Bonsignore of Fairfax; Smithsonian research sociologist Roy Bryce-Laporte; Marie Estella de Bancens of the Spanish International television network; Andrew W. McCoy of the Smithsonian office of public service; Ralph C. Rinzler, director of folklife programs at the Smithsonian; Edward A. Singletary, comptroller of C&P Telephone Co.; the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley of People's Congregational Church in Washington and Lavell Merritt, minority purchasing officer for the Montgomery County government