Crisis at the Smithsonian: Catherine B. Reynolds - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Catherine B. Reynolds "Crisis at the Smithsonian"
September 19, 2002

When Catherine B. Reynolds trotted her $38-million gift horse into the hallways of the Smithsonian Institution in May 2001, she wanted what the museum's curators weren't used to giving--free range of the ranch.

The northern Virginia businesswoman, who made her fortune from an enormously successful student loan business, gave her multimillion dollar pledge to the National Museum of American History with strings attached--mainly, a stipulation to build a 10,000-square-foot hall of achievement dedicated to "the power of the individual to make a difference." The role-models Reynolds hoped would inspire young people to greatness were figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Sam Donaldson, Dorothy Hamill, and Martha Stewart. Not coincidentally, her husband, Wayne Reynolds, runs the Washington-based American Academy of Achievement, a clubhouse for those who struggled up the metaphorical ladder to success.

Then, nine months later, tired of the controversy her donation helped generate, the 44-year-old philanthropist changed her mind. "Apparently, the basic philosophy of the exhibit is the antithesis of that espoused by many within the Smithsonian bureaucracy," she said in a letter to the Smithsonian dated February 4, 2002. "[According to them,] 'only movements and institutions make a difference, not individuals.'"

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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