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Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Published: Friday, 9/2/2005

Salvaging the Smithsonian

TIME has a way of catching up with everything. With aging public buildings, attention to maintenance and repair must be an on-going affair to effectively preserve what cannot be replaced. So it is particularly troubling to learn that crucial work on the world's largest museum complex and uniquely American treasure has been allowed to lag for so long.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington is in a bad way after years of apparent physical and structural neglect. Pipes are leaking, expansion joints are showing visible signs of strain, plaster is crumbling, plumbing is outdated, roofs need repairs, and the list goes on.

Congress only slightly increased the amount of funds earmarked for the Smithsonian, spending $621.3 million in fiscal 2006 up from $615.2 million this year. But museum officials figure it will take $2.3 billion over the next nine years to fix the most pressing problems identified.

And some of those problems can't wait for political foot-dragging to run its course. The Government Accountability Office conducted an audit that concluded there was a "broad decline in the Smithsonian's aging facilities and systems that pose a serious long-term threat" to its countless artifacts.

Some of those treasured pieces have already been lost forever because the buildings are falling apart. It happened in the Museum of American History when a rusty pipe ruptured while curators were waiting for financing and management restructuring after a 2001 government review.

Museum officials accept partial blame for the delay on pressing repair projects. Shortly after he was installed as the institution's secretary in 2000, Lawrence Small told a government hearing his staff had been reluctant to tell Congress the full extent of needs at the Smithsonian because of the likelihood they would exceed budget caps. Subsequent reviews of the Smithsonian buildings' management showed that was indeed the case.

Some of the maintenance problems scattered throughout the Smithsonian's 18 museums and galleries, 10 science centers, and zoological park are clearly apparent, with overhead scaffolding covers to protect people from falling bits of plaster or metal. Areas that are deemed too dangerous for the tourists have been closed pending repairs.

Other structural concerns remain less visible but extensive nonetheless. The institution's governing body, the Board of Regents, has debated initiating entrance fees to the Smithsonian but, fortunately, hasn't embraced the notion.

Admission has not been charged in modern times at the Smithsonian, and the opportunity to view the more than 136 million historical objects contained in the vast complex should remain free to the public.

It is up to Congress. Private donations to the Smithsonian are important but generally not designated for plaster or plumbing repairs. Once the scope of dilapidation can be determined and the depth of budget problems evaluated, steps must be taken to restore and reinforce the remarkable national landmark for many future generations of visitors to enjoy.



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