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Smithsonian Update March 19, 2003
by Marisa Macari

Goings-on at the Smithsonian Institution have been further investigated, analyzed, and debated since "Crisis at the Smithsonian" (September 19, 2002). Controversy over the institution's relationships with corporate sponsors continues. Dozens of animals die, some perhaps as a result of negligence, at the National Zoological Park. The science commission completes its report outlining a scientific vision for future research at the Smithsonian, while a blue-ribbon commission makes harsh comments about the National Museum of American History. Smithsonian executives resign; others are appointed. Our updated timeline continues the chronology as the Smithsonian tries to emerge from a period of crisis.

March 11, 2002

Smithsonian renames the National Air and Space Museum's Imax Theater. The Smithsonian Institution receives a $10-million contribution from defense technology producer, Lockheed Martin Corporation. Subsequently, the Langley Theater, previously dedicated to aviator pioneer and the third Smithsonian secretary, Samuel P. Langley, is renamed to honor the corporate donor.

April 29, 2002

This week, Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo, refuses to reveal to Washington Post staff writer, D'Vera Cohn, the medical records of a giraffe who has recently died under Spelman's supervision. She says in her email response to Cohn that "one reason is privacy. Certainly, the privacy rules that apply to human medical records, and the physician-patient relationship, do not apply in precisely the same way to animal medicine at a public institution like the National Zoo. But we believe they do in principle." Animal-rights legal specialists are outraged by what they feel is Spelman's attempt to hide her own careless treatment of zoo animals.

May 7, 2002

The report of the blue-ribbon commission is released. One year ago, the Board of Regents created a "blue-ribbon" commission (see May 7, 2001) to research the effectiveness of the National Museum of American History's exhibitions as well as to suggest improvements. The results are in. Commission chairman, Richard Darman, former White House budget director, reports that the museum, despite being the third most visited museum, fails to tell a cohesive story of American history. The gallery space needs to be expanded and the exhibit themes redefined. According to the Washington Post (May 8, 2002), Neil Harris of the University of Chicago advocates for a "scholarly overhaul" at the museum, in order to prevent exhibits from becoming more concerned with commercialism than content, for which they have been recently criticized. This renovation, ironically, will be funded by $100 million privately donated to the museum.

Blake Gopnik, chief art critic of the Washington Post, disagrees with the blue-ribbon criticism, saying that a museum is not a substitute textbook, nor are its artifacts merely illustrations of our history. The often crammed and somewhat cluttered objects at the National Museum of American History, he argues, are pieces of our history that speak for themselves, and we do not have to be taught about them to learn from them.

May 12, 2002

The chief accountant of the Smithsonian, comptroller Edward Knapp, resigns. Smithsonian inspector general is investigating Knapp's expense accounts. "There was a quarter of a million dollars spent for a manual that was never completed," says a Smithsonian staff member to the Washington Post on May 23, 2002.

January 7, 2003

After 15 months of rigorous analysis, research and review, the science commission releases their report (see September 2001). The report addresses the questions that the commission was charged with, "how should the Smithsonian set priorities for scientific research in the years ahead and, in general, carry out its historic mission more effectively?"

The commission urges the institution to secure money from both federal and private sources, without which it could "slip...into a state of mediocrity from which it will be hard to recover." The Commission suggests four areas of research, on which the Smithsonian should focus. These scientific themes include the Origin and Nature of the Universe, the Formation and Evolution of the Earth and Similar Planets, Discovering and Understanding Life's Diversity, and the Study of Human Diversity and Culture Change.

Click here for more on the report.

January 11, 2003

Two adult male red pandas are found dead at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo. Preliminary reports suggest that the pandas suffered from accidental poisoning. They died soon after pellets of aluminum phosphide, which mixes with ground water to form a toxic gas, were buried in their enclosure to control a rat problem.

January 14, 2003

Professor and curator Sharon F. Patton is named director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. Using her artistic expertise, Patton aspires for greater African-American patronage and encourages the museum to join international discussions of politics, economics, and art.

January 26, 2003

This week the Smithsonian's governing board, headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, sends a letter to members of the House Appropriations Committee to supply information on its donor policies. The federal government provides 70 percent of the Smithsonian Institution's annual budget, approximately $515 million for fiscal year 2003. While reviewing budget requests last July, Congress asked the Smithsonian's Board of Regents to explain its relationships with donors as well as the museum's naming policies. These requests were prompted in part by the controversial renaming of the National Museum of American History, Behring Center and of the Langley Theater (see January 2002). Although the committee urges the Smithsonian to reconsider the new name, Rehnquist's letter to Congress formally defends the Smithsonian's decision (see January 2002). It states that "re-negotiation would set a precedent that could undermine the Smithsonian's outstanding reputation with existing and prospective donors." The correspondence explains the board's new role in reviewing future corporate sponsorships and joint ventures.

January 27, 2003

Director of the National Zoo, Lucy H. Spelman announces the appointment of a new curator to improve animal care.

A nine-year-old, 600 lb. pygmy hippopotamus dies at the National Zoo. The hippo's necropsy report shows signs of pulmonary congestion, which could have caused its premature death. The zoo has been plagued by an increase in animal deaths in recent months. In addition to the red pandas (see January 11, 2003) and hippo, a lion died from anesthetic complications, an onager died from salmonella poisoning, and an orangutan was mistakenly euthanized.

January 29, 2003

Christian Samper, is appointed director of the National Museum of Natural History. A native of Costa Rica, Samper founded the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, a biodiversity research center in Colombia. He plans on increasing conservation and diversity research as well as hiring additional curators. He has been charged with the weighty task of re-building the Smithsonian and stopping "the erosion in scientific personnel," by Jeremy Sabloff, a member of the search committee that chose Samper.

March 2, 2003

Inspector General of the Smithsonian announced that the death (in early 2000) of the National Zoo's Grevy's Zebra, a native of East Africa, died of hypothermia because of its lack of body fat. Zoo reports indicate that Director Spelman ordered for a decrease in its food when she noticed it looked overweight. The zoo's nutritionist reported after the death that "an enlarged belly in equines is a symptom of poor nutrition." Although Spelman's actions were investigated, a final report was never provided for her superiors.

March 5, 2003

Secretary Small and the National Zoo director agree to subject the National Zoo to inspections. Receiving 80 percent of its funding from the federal government, the National Zoo was the only zoo exempt from U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections. Because of the current wave of animal deaths, the members of the House Administrations Committee will begin sending unannounced inspectors from the USDA to the zoo. Additionally, the National Academy of Sciences will investigate to determine whether or not human error was involved with the animal deaths. These investigations could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Washington Post reporter Karlyn Barker believes they will only take place after the House has decided who will be financially responsible for funding these visits.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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