Smithsonian's Missions At Odds

SUN JOURNAL

Institution: While Museum Administrators Have Been Able To Attract Private Money For Showy Exhibits, Curators Worry That Limited Public Money For Behind-the-scenes Work Will Lead To Gaps In The Collections.

April 20, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When black spots appeared on deep sea red crabs in 1995, alarmed fishermen turned to the Smithsonian Institution for an explanation.

Scientists there found the same markings on crabs that the Smithsonian had collected in the 1890s. The fishermen were reassured that the spots were a natural phenomenon, not the harbinger of a new disease or environmental menace.

The crab review validated once again the curator's motto: Keep everything because you never know when you'll need it.

But these days, curators tending the Smithsonian's 140 million artifacts worry that when scientists of the future look for specimens from the late 20th century they won't find what they need. Several years of congressional budget cuts have forced the institution to lay off staff, curtail research and, in some cases, stop collecting. Those reductions have come even as the institution has turned more to corporations and private individuals to pay for new halls and exhibits.

"The only place that Congress can cut is in the discretionary budget, and we're in it along with a lot of other agencies," says Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman. "If we're going to continue to grow, we're going to have to find private funding."

That split between private and public money reflects a split in the institution. There are, in effect, two Smithsonians with two distinct missions:

When English scientist James Smithson died in 1829, he left the United States $500,000 in gold coins and explicit instructions to create the "Smithsonian Institution" for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Collecting, research and study increase knowledge; the museums on the National Mall, the public displays and the traveling exhibits diffuse it.

Increasing knowledge is hard, often anonymous work, carried on behind the scenes where scientists and researchers pore over details such as variations in the wrist bones of squirrels. Diffusion is glamorous -- new galleries, glitzy interactive computer displays, a traveling show of 300 acclaimed artifacts.

Museum administrators have successfully attracted private money for showy exhibits. But paying the light bill and for the bread-and-butter work still falls primarily to the federal government.

So while Bantam Books is sponsoring a "Star Wars" exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum and while Janet Annenberg Hooker has donated $5 million and her priceless yellow starburst diamonds for a new hall of geology, gems and minerals, the basic operational budget is limited by Uncle Sam's tightening purse strings.

"People want to see something tangible for their contribution, and it's hard to show them the new computer system or the renovated office space," says Randall Kremer, spokesman for the National Museum of Natural History.

Likewise, only a small percentage of the 6 million annual visitors to the Museum of Natural History ever see the birds and bees, bats, plants, rocks and human remains preserved in drawers and boxes, many of which have lined the interior halls for lack of other storage space since President Richard M. Nixon's 1969 inaugural ball, as Secret Service stickers attest.

Visitors drawn by the Hope diamond and the dinosaur bones, the museum's two most popular exhibits, might not know that the departments responsible for them have been especially hard hit by retirements and buyouts. Elsewhere, the museum's division of mammals has all but stopped collecting specimens from nearby Maryland and Virginia.

"In the years to come, when people look back at the collections, there will be a gap in the '90s," says Richard W. Thorington, curator of mammals.

Archival collections are important because they enable researchers to trace the spread of diseases (such as Lyme disease found in ticks collected in the 1940s, long before doctors recognized the symptoms) and the effects of pollution (such as mercury contamination in tuna).

The collections management staff for the department of anthropology has also lost 10 people, leaving only two conservators responsible for the care of 2.3 million objects. That ratio, as forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley notes, is "unheard of for a major museum."

"I feel like I'm always hustling for money for basics in the sense of: `Where are we going to be able to obtain X-ray film for the next forensic case?' " says Owsley.

At the Air and Space Museum -- preparing for the opening of the "Star Wars" exhibit in October -- the staff has been reduced by 20 positions and is "doing more with less," spokesman Mike Fetters says. The archive reading room has been closed to the public on Mondays -- though, as Fetters says, "the average visitor coming through is probably not going to notice significant changes."

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