Crisis at the Smithsonian: Lawrence M. Small - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Lawrence M. Small "Crisis at the Smithsonian"
September 19, 2002

Lawrence M. Small was at the center of the storm from the get-go. He became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in January 2000, after a high-profile banking career at Citicorp/Citibank and Fannie Mae. Unlike previous secretaries, Small had zero credentials as a scholar and no experience with nonprofit research or educational institutions.

While the Board of Regents justified Small's appointment by arguing that he brought with him the kind of management competence and business savvy the institution needed to improve its bottom line, he and his policies have been attacked in editorials in major newspapers, and by academics and conservators both inside and outside the Smithsonian. During his tenure, directors of seven museums have submitted their resignations. Congress has intervened after Small's cutbacks included the proposed closure of the institution's animal biodiversity research facility. Small seemed to raise hackles wherever he went, even on his home turf.

Commercial sponsorship of museum exhibitions has been another bone of contention. Donations from Fujifilm, Kmart, General Motors, and Catherine B. Reynolds for a "Hall of Achievers," sparked a flurry of letters, including an open letter from a group of 170 scholars, authors, and academics to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the chancellor of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. "If Mr. Small is permitted to continue his agenda," it read, "the Smithsonian will become much like a shopping mall, with virtually every inch devoted to the promotion of a corporation or its product."

His personal life has also been dogged by controversy. After pictures of Small's private collection of South American masks, headdresses, and costumes appeared in the January 2000 issue of Smithsonian magazine, he was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which suspected that the pictures showed feathers from protected bird species and teeth from endangered cats. The service opened the investigation in November, closed it in March 2001, and reopened it last summer after the service reviewed additional information from published of Small's collection and reports from ornithologists. As of April 2002, the case was still under review.
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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America