The Decline of a Grand Old Institution

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What's wrong with this picture: America is spending billions and billions of dollars to bomb the snot out of Iraq, but we can't even spare a fraction of that cost to fix our premier museum and zoo??

According to a news story that appeared in today's Washington Post, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Zoo are rapidly deteriorating due to a lack of funds to repair and update the facilities and to hire enough security guards to protect this nation's historic treasures.

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.

[ ... ]

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. [story]

I have only visited the Smithsonian and the National Zoo once each in my life, but even if I had never visited them, I would still be appalled and outraged by the horrific state of things there. Currently, the Smithsonian is relying on a shoestring budget while the administrators who are charged with running the place are more interested in ripping it off than in protecting its legacy. The most egregious example of this is former secretary Lawrence Small, who received $1.15 million in housing allowances during his six-year tenure, funds that included a $5,700 bill from a contractor to patch a roof, repair a skylight and redo walls in Small's house.

This inappropriate use of funds is causing problems for the institution as a whole. For example, the Smithsonian is having difficulties in borrowing rare artifacts from other institutions and museums for public view because of the Smithsonian's inability to provide adequate security for these items.

What are possible solutions to this problem? Installing more security cameras, hiring more security guards, shutting down museums one or two days a week to save money, imposing entrance fees, and conducting a national "Save America's Treasures" fundraising drive.

Picture this: holding street corner bake sales to raise enough funds to protect this country's national treasures while we mortgage our future to bomb one country that is 6,000 miles away because we are afraid of the citizens in yet another, even more distant, country that we believe to be our friends.

This just makes my head hurt.

Thanks for the news story link, Ian.

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You hit the nail right on the head. Charging admission would keep some of the riff raff out of the museums, but until the Board of Regents gets their act together and actually changes its MO, the ripoffs of imposters like Small could be repeated.

How many votes are at stake?

A little cynical I know, but the amount of money already wasted (by that I mean the money collected by the likes of Halliburton, that well known Dubai company) could not only pay for all the museums but also a lot of science research and to repair your schools and fund free health care.

It seems a no-brainer to me, but I guess the politicians don't see any votes in it whilst wars always lead to loud politics (also pithy sound bites) that can be used to stir emotions and engender feelings of righteousness.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 30 Sep 2007 #permalink