The Smithsonian plans to open its first international exhibition space at a new cultural complex being developed at the former Olympic park in London, officials announced Tuesday.
The deal would mark the first time in the institution’s 168-year history that it would have a public presence outside the United States. It also would make the Smithsonian part of an elite group of museums — including the Guggenheim in New York and the Louvre in Paris — that have opened venues in other parts of the world.
The Smithsonian’s partners in the center that locals have dubbed the “Olympicopolis” — a key element of the proposed educational and cultural district — are the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, University College London East and the University of the Arts London. The center is expected to open in 2021.
“For the Smithsonian to be in London, a multicultural tourist beacon, to have a presence there with other world-class institutions, is a great opportunity for us,” said John W. McCarter Jr., chairman of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. “We view it as part of our mission to take the Smithsonian to folks who can’t make it to Washington.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson and the developers of the site have pledged $50 million to the Smithsonian’s piece of the complex. It would total 40,000 square feet, roughly half of the main floor of the National Air and Space Museum.
Acting secretary Albert G. Horvath said London’s investment was “the key enabler” for consideration to pursue a deal.
David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, who will become the Smithsonian secretary on July 1, said the move is a natural for the massive research and cultural center.
“In higher education and the world of culture, art, history and science, there is a lot of emphasis on global efforts,” Skorton said. “I will, and the Smithsonian will, learn something and gain from working with these partners cheek to jowl.”
Skorton said the project would take the institution full circle, as it was created from the estate of British scientist James Smithson. “It will strengthen our partnerships with a lot of our colleagues in Britain and strengthen the partnership between our two countries,” he said.
British officials first approached the Smithsonian in the spring, and several regents, including McCarter, have visited the site. Officials estimate the venture would cost between $5 million and $7 million annually to operate. McCarter was adamant that no federal dollars would be involved. Admission would be free, he said, but revenue from retail, special-exhibit fees and private donations would cover the added costs. The Smithsonian operation, which includes 19 museums and research centers and the National Zoo, is supported with a congressional appropriation of about $820 million annually.
The project comes at a busy time. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, under construction along the Mall, is expected to open next year. And in October, the institution announced a $1.5 billion campaign, its first unified fundraising effort and the largest for an American cultural organization. The campaign is expected to run through 2017.
Horvath said the London project is a logical extension of the Smithsonian’s recent efforts to engage with audiences beyond its museums in Washington and New York.
“We have done a lot of that digitally,” he said. “This opportunity allows us to think about expanding our access to the world in a physical way.”
It is too early to predict what kind of exhibitions would be on view, officials said, or whether beloved objects from current Washington exhibitions would be shipped across the Atlantic.
“We envision this as something that allows us to show the breadth and depth of everything we do,” Horvath said, noting that about 95 percent of the Smithsonian’s collection is not on view at any given time. “We have a treasure of things, and lots and lots of ideas of things we can do.”
McCarter said the regents voted unanimously to authorize Horvath to negotiate the terms of the deal. There is no deadline, Horvath said, but the partners want “to settle this as soon as possible, to know we’re on the same page.”
The Board of Regents does not need congressional approval to move forward, McCarter said, adding that the regents who are members of Congress have been supportive. The 17-member Board of Regents includes six seats for members of Congress, but two of those seats are vacant.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Board of Regents, welcomed the British offer.
“Because the project would be fully self-financed, its establishment only signals bright things for the Institution in the future, including new donors and broadened support,” he said in a statement. “This possible opportunity comes at a particularly important time in Anglo-American relations and reinforces the strong ties that exist between our two countries.”
The final terms of the deal must be approved by the regents’ executive committee. McCarter said they are proceeding with caution.
“We have both financial and reputational risk, and we are determined not to go wrong,” he said.