Smithsonian–‘Nations Attic'–Leaking Badly

Not to worry—the Congress will not let
this happen. Those who stand up every day in the halls of the House and
Senate, shaking a righteous finger in the defense of our most precious
freedoms, will ride like the cavalry to the rescue. It is, after all, a
miniscule number, an amount required to fund less than a week of war.

An article in (what else?) the Washington Post, Jim Grimaldi outlines the decline and fall of yet another American institution.

  • Free speech? No, the corporate and media giants have already co-opted that one.
  • Freedom of the press and an independent media? Sorry, that was bought while we were busy at the mall, by an Australian billionaire.
  • Then, it’s gotta be our right to be left the hell alone in our own homes. Uh, uh. That most cherished of our rights was the first casualty of the War on Drugs.

Smithsonianinstitution
The institution of which I speak is not philosophical, but actual bricks and mortar—the Smithsonian, “an
educational and research institute and associated museum complex,
administered and funded by the government of the United States and by
funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its shops and
its magazine.”
Commonly called the nation’s attic—a sort of Hubble telescope of our historic past, it’s in trouble.

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.

Not to worry—the Congress will not let
this happen. Those who stand up every day in the halls of the House and
Senate, shaking a righteous finger in the defense of our most precious
freedoms, will ride like the cavalry to the rescue. It is, after all, a
miniscule number, an amount required to fund less than a week of war.
Senfeinstein
Infrastructure, that buzz-word of just a few months back, graven into
the imagery of our minds by the disaster of bridge collapse in
Minneapolis, is still on the tip of our political tongue. What more precious example of the nation’s collective infrastructure is there than the ‘Smith’?’ Just ask Dianne Feinstein, frenetic Senator from California.

Feinstein
has told Smithsonian officials that it is unrealistic to count on
federal funding for the upgrades and has urged them to find alternative
funding. The GAO report suggests that the Smithsonian should dip into
unrestricted trust funds, which account for 6 percent ($58 million in
2006) of the institution’s budget.

C’mon,
Dianne. You expect a decades-long shortfall in major long term
maintenance needs to be made up by increasing entry fees to school-kids
and sucking harder on the gift-shop straw? That’s like Minneapolis
building a toll bridge, except that the bridge that collapsed in
Minnesota isn’t the treasure-trove of America.
Feinstein’s hard line is particularly offensive in the face of a recent Wall Street Journal article
that tags Dianne for a $4 billion earmark for her Hollywood friends.
Her heart may be in San Francisco, but she’s going to make sure
taxpayers leave four billion in the woods of Holly, a kind of
gifty-giveaway to her already rich local buddies. Protecting their
‘view’ is part of the justification and there’s no suggestion from
Dianne to dip into any Hollywood unrestricted trust funds.
Lawrencesmall
Part of the sniping at the Smith is their own foolish fault. They hired
a bozo by the name of Larry Small, who had been CEO of the Federal National Mortgage Association. That should have been a tip-off, but wasn’t.
Small bamboozled a salary in excess of $700,000, got a housing
allowance of $1.5 million and then went to work renovating the house
and his office. Unworried about leaks in the museum roofs, he and his
wife flew 1st class at Smithsonian expense and he (quite properly)
angered Congress by doing all this as the institution declined.
But hey, compared to the thievery and excess Congress continues to
fund in Iraq every single day, the Smithsonian needs are small-potatoes
and unlike the war, they matter to America.

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.

Smithsonianaircraft
Officials insist on that
because it’s easier to get contributions for new acquisitions and
facilities than it is for tarring a roof or digging a new storm-drain.
Same for personnel. “Would you care to contribute $2 million to salaries for our guards?” Thought not.

The
number of security officers has steadily declined since May 2003 even
though the Smithsonian has opened new museums, resulting in fewer
officers to cover more space, the GAO said. At times, security alarms
would ring, but guards would be unavailable to check on them. Guards
once assigned to cover a single gallery must now cover two.

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. St. Thomas said
an outside firm has been hired to determine if the number of guards is
adequate.

St. Thomas needed an outside firm for
that. No wonder some in the Congress are wondering if anyone knows how
to run the show. I’ll give you a clue, Linda—no charge. If you have

  • more museum space opening and
  • fewer and fewer guards and
  • stuff is beginning to get vandalized and stolen,

it’s a pretty good guess that the number of guards in not adequate.

Two
Smithsonian officials told the GAO of “alarming ‘near misses’ — events
related to inadequate facilities that could have been catastrophic,”
including a leak a year ago at the Sackler Gallery that would have
destroyed $500 million in loaned artwork if the deluge had occurred
while the art was stored there.

The leak was caused by problems
with the steam system for the complex of underground buildings near the
Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. “Museum officials stated that staff
must routinely spend time each morning searching for new leaks in order
to move or cover collections to keep them safe,” the report said.
“Several officials emphasized they have been lucky to avoid major
damage to the collections thus far.”

Smithsonianmagazine
Major museums have no business being run by snarky politicos who come
from the contributor crowd. There is probably no more major museum in
the world than the Smithsonian, with nineteen separate facilities and a
zoo. It has eight research centers and includes sites in New York City,
Virginia, Panama, and elsewhere, with over 142 million items in its
collections.
It deserves a major-league curator to run the show and crank up donations.
Deals such as the recent CBS/Showtime Networks agreement only
cheapen the product. But while Feinstein’s committee figures out how to
punish this behavior and threaten that malfeasance, it
might look first to cleaning up its own act. Stripping the funding
while the roof falls in and priceless exhibits become worthless, is
almost as foolish as . . . as
. . . earmarks to the Hollywood rich or pounding money into the rat-hole that is Blackwater.
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