Crisis at the Smithsonian: Timeline - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Timeline "Crisis at the Smithsonian"
September 19, 2002

2000 | 2001 | 2002

  • The Smithsonian's O. Orkin Insect Zoo Center is named following a $500,000 gift from Orkin Pest Control.

In defense of his present-day decisions, Small points to the Orkin gift as a precedent.

  • Kenneth E. Behring donates $20 million to the National Museum of Natural History.

January 2000
  • Lawrence M. Small becomes Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Small is the first nonacademic to head the institution since it was founded in 1846 with a gift from British scientist James Smithson "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Under Small's charge are the National Zoo and 16 museums covering a wide range of subjects including art, architecture, American history, and natural history.
  • Photographs of Small's collection of South American masks, headdresses, and costumes appear in Smithsonian magazine.

Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspect that the photographs show feathers from protected bird species and teeth from endangered cats.

September 19, 2000
  • Kenneth E. Behring donates $80 million to the National Museum of National History.

The museum is renamed the National Museum of National History, Behring Center. Behring is also given a say in picking the designer of the museum renovations.

November 2000
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begins an investigation into Small's private collection of Amazonian tribal art.
  • Fujifilm makes a $7.8 million contribution to bring two giant pandas from China to the National Zoo.

The Smithsonian Institution is criticized for selling its name, especially when the "Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat" featured a stuffed panda holding a big Fujifilm sign. The Smithsonian is also brought to task by Commercial Alert, a watchdog group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, in a letter to its Board of Regents dated January 16, 2002, for giving Fujifilm its 2001 "Corporate Leadership Award," thus "providing the appearance that the Smithsonian's judgment is for sale."

February 15, 2001
  • Kmart and the Smithsonian Institution co-sponsor a mobile exhibit featuring African-American music.

In celebration of Black History Month, the Museum of American History, in partnership with Kmart, assembled a mobile exhibit called "Wade in the Water: African-American Sacred Music Traditions 1871-2001. A 48-foot, double-expandable trailer with giant Kmart signs on each sides, it was to travel to Kmart stores and schools throughout the country.

When criticized for using Kmart's name, Small says, "Why shouldn't they get something out of it? They put up the money for it."

March 2001
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closes its investigation.

The investigation is closed after the service receives copies of import permits and written assurances from Small that the collection contains no products from endangered species.

April 2001
  • The Bush Administration's budget is submitted to Congress. The Office of Management and Budget approves a $40 million increase in funding for the Smithsonian.

Of $494 million allocated to the Smithsonian, some $30 million will go to the building of the Museum of the American Indian and restoring old museum buildings. The Smithsonian contends that what's left won't cover the $15.6 million increase needed for salaries, utilities, and postage; nor will it fund "institution priorities": setting up a satellite air and space museum ($1.7 million), buying a new financial system, updating computers and security systems for $8 million, and starting a new $2-million outreach program.

Small says he expects to reallocate $13.45 million from existing programs to these new undertakings and projects.

April 9, 2001
  • Small announces plans to eliminate the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center (CRC), the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE), Smithsonian Productions, three offices of the Smithsonian Libraries, and the internal document duplicating center.

Up to 200 jobs were to be eliminated, about three percent of the Smithsonian's 6,000-person workforce.

In response to Small's plan to close the CRC, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, send a letter in early May:

"In our opinion, the detrimental impacts to conservation biology and wildlife restoration far outweigh any short-term budgetary savings that might be achieved through the closing of this world-class facility, and we urge you to reconsider," the letter says. "We live in an era of shrinking habitats and ever-increasing stress on domestic and global wildlife populations. The loss of a world-class research facility dedicated to conservation biology and cutting-edge science would represent a major step backward in wildlife conservation and compromise future efforts to recover species on the brink of extinction."

April 16, 2001
  • Smithsonian scientists register a formal protest against proposed cutbacks.

May 2, 2001
  • Small issues a "white paper" defending his reorganization proposal.

The reorganization, including the closing of the CRC, says Small, is needed so "that the Smithsonian can continue to be a major force for discovery and innovation in the twenty-first century, when the nature and conduct of the scientific research are dramatically different than they were at the time of the Smithsonian's founding in the nineteenth century."

May 5, 2001
  • Small withdraws his proposal to close the CRC in advance of a Smithsonian's Board of Regents meeting.

May 7, 2001
  • The Board of Regents approves the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to advise on strategic exhibition planning at the National Museum of American History.

Meanwhile, members of congress tell Small not to act without the commission's approval.

The year-long blue-ribbon study on how to reorganize the American History Museum, chides Small for allowing corporate and private donors to dictate content or brand the exhibits. "There are lines beyond which gifts said to be charitable in their motivation look promotion and advertising," it says, urging the Smithsonian to resist the tendency, not just to preserve its credibility, but also to "increase the prestige value of sponsors' discrete association with the museum."

The report also reminds staff that "the museum does not have a monopoly on good ideas." It calls for more diversity in content and presentation, more coherence in its overall organization and an overhaul of the building's design.")

May 8, 2001
  • Small announces at a news conference that the Smithsonian Board of Regents has approved his proposal for budget cuts, including the closure of the SCMRE.

May 9, 2001
  • Catherine Reynolds gives a luncheon party to announce a $38-million gift to the Smithsonian. She suggests a "Hall of Achievers" exhibit.

The next day's New York Times quotes her as saying that her eponymous foundation wants a "hands-on role" in planning the inspirational exhibition on American achievers it is funding. "You don't just write a check and say, 'That solves the problem,'" she says.

May 23, 2001
  • Small gets a public vote of no confidence from a group of American history scholars.

The group tells the Board of Regents that recent Small decisions "jeopardize the integrity and authority of this beloved institution."

May 29, 2001
  • National Museum of Natural History director, Robert Fri, announces his resignation.

Fri is the first science director to resign under Small.

"The upcoming reorganization of the science units of the Smithsonian will substantially affect the National Museum of Natural History," Fri says in a statement released by his office. "The process will require the leadership of a management team committed to pursuing its success over the long haul. I do not feel that I can make that commitment enthusiastically."

Fri steps down after a five-year-term in October. J. Dennis O'Connor, chief manager of science programs at the Smithsonian Institution takes over as acting director. O'Connor formerly served temporarily as acting director of the National Zoo until the permanent director was named.

June 28, 2001
  • The Senate Appropriations Committee votes to keep the SCMRE open.

July 10, 2001
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopens its investigation.

The investigation is reopened after reviewing more information from published photographs of Small's collection and reports from ornithologists.

July 18, 2001
  • The National Museum of American History offers General Motors the right to name a new "Hall of Transportation" in exchange for a $10-million gift.

The opening of the General Motors Hall of Transportation at the museum is targeted for 2003.

Following a report of the Smithsonian's offer, Ralph Nader, in a news release from Commercial Alert, says that Small "seems to recognize no limits to the commercialization of this historic, non-profit, taxpayer-supported institution. To let GM pay for, be associated with, and influential over a transportation exhibit, given its decades long record of criminal convictions, buying up and displacing mass transit systems, producing unsafe and polluting cars, is to confess to a complete abdication of any standards of museum integrity and independence."

A company spokesman tells the New York Times that General Motors will have "zero input" in the exhibition's content.

August 28, 2001
  • The National Air and Space Museum announces a ten-year agreement with McDonald's to create a McDonald's-run restaurant within the museum.

September 2001
  • A science commission is established in the wake of public outcry about Small's plans to reorganize Smithsonian science programs.

The 18-member commission includes Smithsonian scientists and managers as well as outside experts from across the country. Jeremy A. Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, heads the commission.

September 19, 2001
  • Spencer Crew, a historian who has worked at the Smithsonian for 20 years, announces his resignation.

Crew is the fifth museum chief to step down since Small's appointment. He says he is leaving under amicable circumstances to become the head of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, is named acting director of the National Museum of American History.

October 2001
  • Milo Beach, director of the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries resigns.

January 16, 2002
  • 170 prominent scholars and authors write an open letter to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the chancellor of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

The letter accuses Small of "degrading this great cultural institution into a corporate pitchman," and for giving donors too much influence over the content of exhibits. The group says that Small is "unwilling or unable to carry out the mission of the Smithsonian, or to safeguard its integrity."

The letter is signed by scholars from the nation's top universities, authors, and at least one former director of a major Smithsonian museum. It also contends that if the Smithsonian continues to allow corporations to place their logos on museum buildings, exhibition halls, and other spaces, the Smithsonian will become "much like a shopping mall, with virtually every inch devoted to the promotion of a corporation or its products."

February 4, 2002
  • Catherine Reynolds retracts her promised donation.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate that the notion of inspiring young people by telling the stories of prominent Americans from all disciplines would be so controversial," Reynolds says in a letter to the Smithsonian. "Apparently the basic philosophy for the exhibit--'the power of the individual to make a difference'--is the antithesis of that espoused by many within the Smithsonian bureaucracy, which is 'only movements and institutions make a difference, not individuals.'"

The first installment of $1.5 million, however, has already been transferred to the museum and will not be returned, according to officials. Small responds to Reynolds in a letter: "Conceptualizing, and ultimately, executing first-class museum exhibits is always extremely challenging. It requires lots of effort and willingness to engage in a great deal of give and take. I'm sure that for some the process is wearing. From the beginning, I felt your intentions were admirable and I still do. It is unfortunate that the project will be halted."

March 20, 2002
  • Small testifies in defense of donor rewards in front of a congressional panel.

Small tells the congressional panel that the $2.5 billion needed to modernize the Smithsonian's museums and the National Zoo will have to be raised from both governments and private sources.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) tells Small that he had seen enough of soliciting funds from corporations and then slapping their names on every building, hall, and rotunda. "Frankly, just speaking as an individual citizen, I deeply resent it," Hinchey says. "You didn't start this but you seem to me to be the biggest cheerleader. What we are experiencing is crass commercialization. I think it is a bad thing--we are selling ourselves very, very cheaply. I would hope that it would stop. I hope you will do something to stop it. I hope that this Congress would recognize its responsibility and fund all of what goes on so we wouldn't have to stoop so low."

In response, Small says, "I respect your point of view. I know it exists in American life. Our regents have put in policies...and I fully support those policies. I don't believe billboards will be put up. I don't believe there will be anything crass about the way the theater displays its name." The theater in question was the Samuel Pierpont Langley theater at the National Air and Space Museum, rechristened as the Lockheed Martin Theater after the company gave the museum $10 million.

Three Republicans on the House Appropriations Subcommittee say they found some benefit in the corporate partnerships. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) for instance, says that the films of the National Zoo by the Animal Planet network "really raise awareness." Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) says that he could imagine Theodore Roosevelt having the Chiquita Banana company support an ape exhibition.

Small describes a rocky period that the Smithsonian faces in the short-term. With all the money needed by the Smithsonian over the next decade, Small indicates partnerships with big donors might become more critical.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Small reports, attendance overall has declined by one-third. The Smithsonian has previously announced it estimates a loss of $12 million from its profit centers.

April 2002
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finishes its inspection of Small's private collection but are still investigating the case.
  • Visitors to the Natural History Museum are given four-page guides that have a back-page ad promoting oil drilling in Alaska.

The guide was paid for by Philips Petroleum Co., but it was discontinued after members of the museum's staff complained.

May 8, 2002
  • Roslyn A. Walker, a longtime curator at the National Museum of African Art and its director for the last five years, announces her retirement.

She is the seventh Smithsonian museum director to leave since Small became secretary.

Dec 10, 2002
  • A science commission report regarding the institution's scientific functions will be presented to the Board of Regents.

Update (March 2003)

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America