The Smithsonian Institution tried to duck another controversy yesterday by canceling a sold-out evening devoted to foie gras. Officials cited "the well-being of our participants" as a foremost reason for their decision.

In the last week the Smithsonian had received dozens of protest letters from celebrities, animal-rights activists and other citizens who asked the museum to reconsider "Foie Gras: A Gourmet's Passion," a lecture and tasting scheduled for next month. Actors Sir John Gielgud and Bea Arthur were among those who wrote saying the duck and goose liver dish should be condemned for cruelty to animals, not celebrated. The delicacy is made by force-feeding ducks and geese to swell their livers.

Museum officials initially said they wouldn't cancel, but the "strong language" in some of the correspondence prompted them to poll a number of the 133 ticket-holders. "We telephoned a large cross section over the weekend and found there was unease about what might happen at the program," said David J. Umansky, the Smithsonian's director of communications.

He declined to say whether any of the correspondence contained threats, but a Smithsonian letter to attendees said, "Because we are always concerned with the well-being of our participants, we have regretfully concluded that it would be in the best interests of everyone involved to cancel the program on foie gras."

The Smithsonian has had to cancel or alter several events in recent years because of protests. In 1995 members of Congress and veterans groups objected to the planned narrative in a World War II exhibition that seemed more sympathetic to Japanese interests than to American soldiers. The original exhibition was scrubbed, but later a different text accompanied the display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Last year, a series of lectures marking the 50th anniversary of Israel was denounced by congressional and Jewish organization critics who thought the speaker list contained too many critics of Israel. The Smithsonian's co-sponsor of the series, the liberal New Israel Fund, was dropped, and the lecture program was revamped to feature largely mainstream diplomats and scholars.

Yesterday activists expressed satisfaction at the Smithsonian's most recent retreat.

Ingrid Newkirk, president of the 600,000-member People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, relayed Gielgud's reaction. "That's very good news, indeed. Please thank them for me," said the 95-year-old British actor who stars in a PETA video, "Victims of Indulgence."

Arthur--one of TV's "Golden Girls"--said: "This is marvelous, marvelous. They're a kind and fine institution."

Said Paul Irwin, president of the Humane Society of the United States, "No responsible institution should be associated with animal cruelty, least of all the Smithsonian Institution."

But Nancy Blaney of the New York-based, 450,000-member American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said she wasn't sure the Smithsonian acted for the right reasons. "I was hoping that they'd seen that this was a mistake," she said. "I was just kind of shocked at their attitude toward this . . . branding all of us who are concerned about it as some kind of criminal element, who would do something untoward.

"Obviously the Smithsonian doesn't take well to criticism," she added. "They can't admit a mistake."