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The Storm at the Smithsonian

Its latest chief's belief in 'modernization and money' has roiled an institution long in flux like never before

June 02, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN

WASHINGTON — Tempers were aflame in 1861 as the nation's capital prepared for war. So officials gave the secretary of the Smithsonian guns and 240 rounds of ammunition "for the protection of the Institute, against lawless attacks."

The current secretary of the Smithsonian must sometimes wish for a similar arsenal, even if the weaponry dates back more than 100 years.

Brought in 21/2 years ago to improve the bottom line and the buzz at the Smithsonian's 16 museums and galleries, eight research centers and one National Zoo, Lawrence Small--a banker by profession and a collector by avocation--has instead provoked his own civil war.

Since Small's arrival, markers of an institution in turmoil have popped up almost monthly: Directors of six museums submitted their resignations. Congress had to step in to save pioneering scientific research. A benefactor withdrew $38 million after her ideas were ridiculed by staffers. And more than 200 academics protested the "commercialization" of the Smithsonian--even faulting its decision to award the cafeteria contract at the National Air and Space Museum to McDonald's.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 16, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled name--In a June 2 Smithsonian Institution story, Dolley Madison's first name was misspelled.

"It's a turbulent time," said Paula DePriest, a scientist at the National Museum of Natural History who is chairwoman of the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars Council. "It's unlike anything in our history."

Small--who declined a request to be interviewed for this story--is the only secretary in the Smithsonian's history who is neither a scientist nor an academic. Formerly president of Fannie Mae, the nation's largest mortgage lender, and before that a vice chairman at Citibank in New York, Small, 60, said in a speech shortly after his arrival that "modernization and money" were his twin goals.

"In a nutshell, I want to modernize everything of consequence at the Smithsonian," he told the 6,300 Smithsonian staff members via videotape. Few would deny that the 156-year-old institution needs a facelift and funds, but Small's business strategies and his brusque demeanor jarred many on the staff.

"His mistake was not building a coalition," said one former museum director, who asked not to be identified. "Maybe imposing decisions from the top works in a corporate setting, but not in academia. The Smithsonian is like a university. You have to work with the faculty."

A Natural History Museum scientist says research isn't Small's priority. "The message we got was that he cared about bricks and mortar and shiny buildings and lines around the block," said the scientist, who asked not to be identified.

Discontent at the museums is now so great that his critics talk with their doors open. "Dump Small" bumper stickers have been spotted on the Mall, outside the Smithsonian's "Castle" headquarters. Staffers gleefully log on to commercialalert.org, a Ralph Nader production with a link to track the debate over Small's tenure.

In the end, the combatants argue, the battle for the heart, soul and budget of the Smithsonian is all about mission. Does the Smithsonian exist to educate or to entertain? Should it make discoveries or profits?

Or, perhaps, can it do it all?

From the beginning, James Smithson's $508,318.46 bequest was a headache. The illegitimate son of a British duke, Smithson never forgave his class-conscious country for its treatment of children born out of wedlock. A scientist, he left his fortune to the people of the United States, which he never actually visited, to fund "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

The first thing Congress did with the money was lose it. It invested Smithson's bequest in bonds issued by the new states of Michigan and Arkansas, which promptly defaulted. President Andrew Jackson was inclined to write off the misfortune but Congressman John Quincy Adams lobbied to make good the appropriation with taxpayer funds. In 1846, the Smithsonian was born.

The institution grew based on personal interests of the men at the top--and major contributions. So many live animals were donated that a zoo was started. A Detroit industrialist donated his American and Oriental art, and presto, the Smithsonian had the Freer Gallery of Art.

Over the years, the only theme at the institution seems to have been the marvel of eclectic discovery--its holdings add up to 142 million items and counting. It contains, for example, the world's largest collection of primary source documents on the visual arts in America. It owns Dolly Madison's dance slippers, the "cursed" Hope diamond (which arrived by regular mail), and the Woolworth's lunch counter where civil rights protesters demanded to be served in the 1960s. Among its science centers is the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, including 12 miles of undeveloped shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay and a Tropical Research Center in Panama staffed by 30 scientists. All of which demonstrates that the question of mission has long been thorny.

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