WASHINGTON - In the Smithsonian Institution's headquarters, a 19th-century fortress known as the Castle, the first businessman ever to head the organization is under sustained attack by some in his own ranks.
His detractors say his decisions have been the bureaucratic equivalent of pouring boiling oil from the battlements - they've been called mindless, heavy-handed and insensitive to the traditional mission of the august institution.
He has responded by labeling his critics resistant to change and slow to embrace new challenges as the sprawling organization tries to stay vibrant in the 21st century.
A year and a half ago, Lawrence M. Small, a former bank executive, became the first nonacademic to lead the Smithsonian - the largest collection of museums and research facilities in the world. For much of that time, this tourist magnet has been in a battle over its new direction.
Though Small disputes it, critics say that morale is at an all-time low. Disgruntled staffers are leaking embarrassing memos about management to the national news media. A Web site - with an emblem that puts a crying face inside the Smithsonian's logo of a blazing sun - lists staff grievances and demands congressional hearings into some of Small's strategies.
Stickers and graffiti blasting management have appeared on the maps and signposts outside the stately Smithsonian buildings visited by 40 million sightseers each year. And the institution has employed counselors to help staffers who say they feel wounded by recent actions and find themselves adrift in the changing climate.
Much of the strife surrounds Small's aggressive fund raising and his decisions about future exhibits.
Small says he wants to attract major-league donors to help turn a 155-year-old landmark into a state-of-the-art millennium museum complex. His adversaries say the plan is to sell out the nation's attic to millionaire contributors more interested in Disney-style infotainment than research, scholarship and the contemplative viewing of exhibits.
The fight is bitter, personal and surprisingly public.
"We don't like this guy and he doesn't like us," Storrs L. Olson, a senior ornithologist at the Museum of Natural History, says of Small. "I think his only way of measuring anything is in the value of dollars - he's actually intellectually incapable of understanding what the Smithsonian stands for."
From the other side, a blunt defense: "You're listening to people who enjoy hearing themselves talk and hearing themselves carp," says David Umansky, Small's spokesman. "Some person is saying, `Ooh, this was bad because we never did it before.' Maybe that person's afraid of hard work."
An institution devoted to studying the past is at a defining moment for its future, both Small and his critics agree. The issue: How does the Smithsonian retool to meet the challenges of the new century?
"This is the greatest period of Smithsonian-wide controversy," says Pamela Henson, director of the institutional history division at the Smithsonian Archives. "There is a sense that we have lost our mission and direction. Part of that is that it's not clear to us what the new direction is."
Small, in an interview, blames the resistance partly on fear of the unknown:
"Woodrow Wilson said, `If you want to make enemies in Washington, change something.' For those who have trepidation about change and the wisdom of moving away from the status quo, I would be a symbol of moving away from the status quo and bringing about change."
Dramas like this one are playing out in museums around the country: Curators struggle to draw young visitors by adding a touch of Magic Kingdom-style popularity to their institutions while seeking to preserve each institution's role as a bastion of history and high culture. Just how the Smithsonian solves this dilemma, bringing museums to the MTV generation, is the focus of national attention.
"However the Smithsonian resolves this will set the tone for the rest of the nation," says Lee W. Formwalt, executive director of the Organization of American Historians. "That's the clout the Smithsonian has, and it can be used for good or not."
Small, a 59-year-old native New Yorker who collects Amazonian feather art and plays flamenco guitar, is applying his business acumen to the museum world. A top executive at Citicorp/Citibank for nearly three decades, he came to the Smithsonian after serving as president at Fannie Mae, the giant federally chartered mortgage investment company.
When he arrived, Small said, he saw dilapidated buildings, shopworn exhibits and a need for change.
"We have grandparents coming back now seeing the same exhibits they saw as children," says Small. "With young people today, it's just not enough to put up a label next to an object. They want to see audio-visuals, they want to see interactive exhibits, they want to go into computer databases."