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From the President: Myopia at the Smithsonian Volume 54 Number 5, September/October 2001
by Nancy C. Wilkie

Closing down a critical research facility

In a particularly shortsighted move, Lawrence Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, has proposed the closure of the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE). His justification is that, in his words, "SCMRE staff do not carry out conservation work on Smithsonian collections." While specialized laboratories and staff at each of the Smithsonian's museums treat their own collections, Small does not acknowledge the real mission of SCMRE, which, according to its director, Lambertus van Zeist, is "the scientific and technical study of objects in museum collections." As a research institution rather than a conservation laboratory, SCMRE seeks to understand the processes that lead to the deterioration of objects and to determine when, where, and how the objects were created, and how they were altered over the course of time.

In addition to researching objects that form part of our cultural patrimony, such as the American flag that flew over Ft. McHenry and a group of deteriorating NASA spacesuits, SCMRE sponsors programs to familiarize archaeologists, conservators, and museum professionals with issues of archaeological conservation and provides training in the latest conservation techniques. Individuals from more than 200 institutions in 40 nations have participated in these programs.

Since it was established in 1963, SCMRE has designed its research and educational programs to support the mission of the Smithsonian Institution. James Smithson, the English chemist and geologist who bequeathed the funds to found the Smithsonian, first articulated that mission in 1846, defining it as "the increase and diffusion of knowledge," a mission that Small recently asserted was "too vague." Yet the real reason for Small's decision to eliminate SCMRE seems to be his drive to increase private fundraising for the Smithsonian. His success in raising $18 million to bring two giant pandas to the National Zoo, and $30 million to purchase a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington, led him to conclude that the Smithsonian should focus its efforts on similar, highly visible initiatives for which it is easier to find donors than for basic research.

Yet over the years the basic research conducted by SCMRE has resulted in significant savings for the Smithsonian's museums. Adoption of new standards for the storage and display of objects developed by SCMRE has saved nearly $2 million a year in energy costs alone, more than half of SCMRE's annual budget of $3.1 million.

Because 70 percent of the Smithsonian's operating budget is financed with federal funds, it is still possible for Congress to reverse Small's decision to close SCMRE by the end of the year. Soon Congress will begin debate on the Interior Appropriations Bill, which includes funding for the Smithsonian. I urge you to let your representatives in the House (www.house.gov/writerep) and Senate (www.senate.gov/contacting/index.cfm) know how important the continuing operation of SCMRE is to those of us who have a concern for the preservation of our cultural patrimony.

Update: The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to keep the SCMRE open. See "Crisis at the Smithsonian," for more information.

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Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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