Smithsonian shyly asking visitors for donations

February 02, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- For the first time in its 147-year history, the Smithsonian Institution is going to ask for donations from visitors at five of its 16 museums.

The board of regents of the sprawling museum complex voted unanimously yesterday to take the action, which Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams described as needed to maintain the institution's programs for many years.

"The federal resources available to us are clearly plateauing," he said. "We'd better start exploring all legitimate sources of support."

Fears had been expressed in Congress and elsewhere that such a step by the heavily taxpayer-supported, all-free Smithsonian could lead it down the path taken by public museums in New York, nearly all of which now charge admission fees or require "suggested donations."

Mr. Adams stressed that the Smithsonian donations would be a one-year experiment, and said no suggested amount had been decided upon. Boxes for them will be placed off to the side rather than in or by entrances, so that visitors will not think donations are required.

"We do not intend this to be a foot in the door of requiring donations," he said. "When this was done with the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert in England several years ago, the number of visitors dropped by half."

Donation boxes will be put into only four of the Smithsonian's 16 facilities during the experiment: the National Air and Space Museum, the world's most-visited museum, will have two donation stations; the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, which share the same building, will each have a station; the National Zoo, three locations; and the Anacostia Museum, which is devoted to African-American subjects, one station.

Mr. Adams said that although corporations have significantly reduced contributions and although revenues from the Smithsonian's magazine, shops and other profit-making enterprises are down, the institution is not facing an immediate budgetary emergency. However, inflation has cut purchasing power 10 percent in six years, he said.

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