At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, Otto Lilienthal hangs gamely from the roof. There is a healthy smile on the face of the life-size model of the 19-century German pioneer of flight but his original glider, which dates from 1890 and which inspired the famous Wright brothers in their own endeavours, is covered with ugly, brown, water stains. Meanwhile, at the nearby Arthur M Sackler gallery, with its rich collection of Asian art, officials have struggled to deal with drips coming down from the roof. And visitors to the historic Arts and Industries Building are confronted by a sign at the entrance that informs them that the museum is closed for renovation. They are not told about metal panels falling from the ceiling.
These three museums are part of the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world, and one of the most prestigious. It includes 18 museums and galleries, 10 science centres, and a zoo, and, in addition to the swathe of locations in the nation's capital, the institution owns and leases buildings in New York, Massachusetts, Arizona, Florida and Panama.
At the last count its wealth of history, art and culture contained more than 136 million items, and it is no exaggeration to say that its officials and curators have the privilege and responsibility of taking care of the most precious of America's treasures. Everything from the original star- spangled banner that flew over Fort McHenry (and which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words that would be adopted as the country's national anthem) to the leather jacket worn by The Fonz in the television series Happy Days are under their supervision.
And yet this complex, which famously and rather fantastically does not charge visitors to enter its main exhibitions, is facing severe problems. Years of inadequate funding and a failure to oversee and ensure proper maintenance " combined with that bullish dedication that entry should be free " has led to widespread disrepair, which officials say threatens the treasures the Smithsonian cares for.
Worse still, officials estimate that it will require an astonishing $2.3bn (pounds 1.3bn) of investment over the next decade if the long-term well-being and safety of the museums and their collections are to be ensured. Congress this year increased annual funding for the institution to $615.2m (pounds 350m) " roughly what our government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport spends on 17 national museums. So far, though, there is no consensus among senior officials in Washington on how the additional funding for the longer- term will be obtained.
Oddly enough, the problems facing the Smithsonian may not be obvious to the majority of the 20 million or so visitors who pour through the doors of the institution's museums every year. At the wonderful air and space museum on the National Mall on an autumn afternoon and one is easily charmed by the exhibitions that feature everything from the Apollo moon landings to the feats of the courageous but ultimately ill-fated Amelia Earhart. There is a display on the Wright brothers and another that features the helicopter that was used by Henry Ross Perot " the son of the two- time presidential candidate Ross Perot " when he co-piloted the first chopper to fly around the world. (The sight of one of the brown leather jackets she wore is enough to make one stop and ponder.) In this museum, at least, one has to look hard to find anything amiss. One might be persuaded that the accident that befell Lilienthal's glider was an isolated incident.
But a report published earlier this year by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative wing of Congress, makes plain the scale of the problems facing the institution. Among a litany of miseries, it points out that, in addition to the closure of the Arts and Industries Building and parts of the National Zoo, a number of storage facilities are off- limits because of concerns about asbestos, artefacts have been damaged, and officials have struggled to maintain the required temperature and humidity levels in some of the older facilities. …