- · vol. 3 · no. 1 · October 2002

Daniel Penrice, a freelance writer and editor specializing in management theory and practice, has also worked as a development writer for universities and other nonprofits since receiving his Ph.D. in American literature from Harvard in 1984.



"Given its unique origins and historical identity, the Smithsonian would seem to deserve protection not just from private exploitation but also from the rigid ideological prescriptions of some of its would-be defenders."

Illustrations by John McCoy

Can This Museum Be Saved?
Daniel Penrice

Part I | Part II

With roughly six million visitors per year flocking to see everything from George Washington's sword to Judy Garland's ruby slippers, the National Museum of American History in Washington would seem to be a going concern. Yet in the past two and a half years, the country's only truly national museum of American history has gained a reputation as the sick man of the Smithsonian, the mammoth museum and research complex that is, in the words of its current leader, "the guardian of America's greatest cultural, scientific and historic treasures." An often fevered public debate about the museum, one that began to rage in the spring of 2001 and is just now beginning to cool down, has raised the same question posed by the ancient medical practice of bloodletting: Which is worse, the disease or the cure?

In the version that has attained the widest circulation to date, the villain of the story and the truly sick man of the Smithsonian is its bloody-minded chief executive, Secretary Lawrence M. Small, aided by, or indentured to, big-time donors. The facts behind the fierce controversy that has arisen around Small's stewardship of the Smithsonian in general and the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in particular are complex, occasionally murky, and, of course, subject to differing interpretations on the two sides of a divide that it has opened up inside and around the museum.

In most versions, the plot begins with Small's arrival at the Smithsonian in January 2000 after a thirty-five-year career as a financial services executive, first at Citicorp/Citibank and then at Fannie Mae. As the first nonscholar to run the Smithsonian since its creation in 1846 (an event that followed a long debate in Congress about, among other things, the propriety of accepting the bequest from English scientist James Smithson that led to its founding and naming), Small was controversial from the start. He also brought a distinctly top-down, damn-the-torpedoes, management-by-objectives approach that was probably bound to clash with the culture of a place that is much more like a university than a corporation. While acknowledging that the organization he had inherited had already achieved an "impressive" degree of public engagement, Small quickly proclaimed that the Smithsonian could—and now would have to—do much better. To attract bigger audiences, particularly among the young, the Smithsonian's sixteen museums (seventeen counting the National Zoo) needed "modernization." To modernize in the thoroughgoing way that Small had in mind (for example, he said that many permanent exhibitions "should be completely reimagined and redone for today's audiences"), the Smithsonian would need buckets of money.


Since the Smithsonian (which is legally a "trust instrumentality of the United States," independent of the government) receives only 70 percent of its budget from the federal government, Small's vision for the institution entails a heavy reliance on private funding. According to an article last winter by Washington Post reporter Bob Thompson, one of Small's first significant actions as secretary was to steer one of the Smithsonian's largest existing donors, real estate baron Kenneth Behring, in the direction of NMAH. Behring's subsequent gift of $80 million, announced in September 2000, was the biggest ever by an individual to the Smithsonian. Although most of the relevant details would not become known even to museum staff for months afterwards, Behring's donation turned out to have gained him several substantial privileges—including an advisory role on two new exhibits on subjects of his choosing—beyond the most visible one: the attachment of the name "Behring Center" to the museum's official moniker.

Then in May 2001, before most of the specifics of Small's gift agreement with Behring had leaked out, the Smithsonian announced a $38 million donation to NMAH from Catherine B. Reynolds, a Virginia philanthropist who had risen from modest origins to make a fortune in the private student-loan business, and who shared Small's interest in making the museum compelling to young people. Reynolds' gift—intended to create a ten-thousand-square-foot space in the museum for an exhibit celebrating American "achievers," possibly including living individuals who could just as accurately be termed "celebrities"—quickly set off alarms both within and beyond the walls of NMAH. It was bad enough, critics charged, that all negotiations with the donor had again been handled by "the Castle" (Smithsonian headquarters, located in the gothic-revival Smithsonian Building on the National Mall), leaving NMAH's professional staff out of the loop entirely. The larger implication of these complaints was that Small was allowing a particularly vulgar parvenu with no idea of what NMAH was about to create her own personal shrine to the rich and famous.

In the vehemence of the outcry that followed, the critics missed a couple of important nuances. Still, the aggregate facts of the Reynolds and Behring cases (especially in the context of other actions Small had already attempted around the Smithsonian) appeared damning enough to warrant strong action.

On May 23 of last year, the NMAH branch of the Smithsonian's Congress of Scholars sent a memo to the Board of Regents (the institution's governing body) charging Small with forging donor relationships that breached "established standards of museum practice and professional ethics." Groups including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council on Public History soon followed suit. Some of the most strident protests among the many that followed in the next few months came from groups such as Ralph Nader's Commercial Alert, which now attacked Small for offering General Motors naming rights to a refurbished NMAH transportation hall in exchange for $10 million to support a new exhibit there. That Small, by this point, had given his critics several megatons of ammunition (notably by actions that appeared to attack the whole research function of the Smithsonian) lent credence to the view that he was trying to drain NMAH of its institutional lifeblood and turn it into a zombie controlled by donors.

In January 2002, a group of 170 scholars and writers sent an open letter to Chief Justice William Rehnquist (the chancellor of the Smithsonian Board of Regents) citing a litany of Small's transgressions. A few days later, Bob Thompson's long piece about NMAH in the Washington Post Magazine portrayed an institution that had completely lost its way (albeit over a period extending back beyond Small's arrival at the Castle), and presented the Small-Behring-Reynolds triad as a kind of tacky, vaguely right-wing cabal. Two weeks after Thompson's article appeared, Catherine Reynolds withdrew all but the $1.5 million of her $38 million gift that the museum already had in hand, despite months of effort to reach a compromise (which historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, who was part of that effort, believes to have been achievable) between her vision and the views of NMAH and outside historians. It was—and is—a depressing tale, and today it is by no means over.


What, if anything, can be said in defense of Lawrence Small, the demon barber of the Castle on the Mall? At least a couple of things, it turns out—starting with the fact that NMAH actually does need "modernization and money."

Small's critics seem to fear that his vision of modernization entails dumbing history down or, at the very least, moving what is now NMAH away from its tradition of collecting, presenting, and interpreting real physical objects and propelling it into the weightless world of virtuality. In their book Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian (Washington and London, 2001), NMAH scholars Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick affirm their stance "on the side of the artifact" and against certain intellectual successors of a late-nineteenth-century Smithsonian curator who said that a modern museum should not be a "cemetery of bric-a-brac." Even so, there seems to be widespread agreement that today's NMAH, for all the richness of its collections, must think more carefully about the needs and tastes of contemporary audiences in presenting them to the public. In particular, it is said, the museum is cluttered, poorly lit, difficult to navigate, and virtually impossible for a visitor to take in as any kind of physically or thematically coherent environment. Its exhibits also neglect many subjects and themes that one would expect to find treated in a place such as NMAH, including such fundamental ones as freedom, democracy, and equal opportunity.

Given these circumstances, NMAH's need for money is real, as is the probable necessity, in the new era of gaping federal budget deficits, of seeking it from private donors. (It should be noted that the Bush administration was relatively generous to the Smithsonian in its first proposed federal budget last winter.) To be sure, there are purists such as the progressive journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, who have stated (apropos of Smithsonian "partnerships" with corporate sponsors) that "there should be a stark dividing line between public and private institutions in America." Yet Small is on solid historical ground in pointing out—as he has in his own defense—that the Smithsonian itself is the product of a private bequest with a stipulation of naming rights, and an institution that has long benefited from the munificence of private donors with names such as Freer, Sackler, and Hirshhorn. Given its unique origins and historical identity, the Smithsonian would seem to deserve protection not just from private exploitation but also from the rigid ideological prescriptions of some of its would-be defenders.

Of course the main argument these days is not about the necessity of raising private funds for NMAH but only about the terms on which it is done. One stubborn reality here is what is sometimes called the "new philanthropy," the tendency of today's many aggressively hands-on individual donors to proclaim, as Catherine Reynolds has, "You don't just write a check and say, 'That solves the problem.'" Another is that corporations—admittedly with the encouragement of museums increasingly desperate for their support—are now more and more likely to insist on terms for corporate sponsorships that effectively turn museums into advertisers and marketers for companies and their products. Although, under such circumstances, it is clearly an institution's responsibility to keep its donors in check, Small and his handful of reputed loyalists within NMAH maintain that they have been doing just that.

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