Smithsonian's Secret Sessions: Small Issue?

By Ellington, Tom | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 25, 2001 | Go to article overview

Smithsonian's Secret Sessions: Small Issue?


Ellington, Tom, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Tom Ellington

Controversy surrounding Secretary Lawrence M. Small's management of the Smithsonian Institution has cast a spotlight on the secrecy of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

The institution's 17-member governing board meets three times a year behind closed doors to set overall policy for the 16 museums and galleries, the National Zoo and research centers - or, as the Smithsonian describes itself, "the world's largest combined museum and research complex." Chief Justice William Rehnquist, also a regent and the institution's chancellor, oversees the meetings.

The board includes the U.S. vice president - Richard B. Cheney has missed the two meetings held since he took office - three members of the House of Representatives and three senators. The Smithsonian receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government: The $455 million appropriated by Congress for fiscal 2001 makes up 71 percent of the total budget, according to figures provided by the institution.

Storrs Olson, a scientist with the National Museum of Natural History, says the secrecy contributes to making the regents "not accountable."

"I've been working here for 30 years and never had much impression of what they're doing," Mr. Olson says.

Mr. Olson is among staff members at odds with Mr. Small, who was hired by the regents to take over as Smithsonian secretary in January 2000. Mr. Small, previously president and chief operating officer of mortgage market giant Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) and an employee for Citicorp/Citibank for 27 years, became the first businessman to head the Smithsonian in its 155-year history.

In addition to his business career, Mr. Small has served on many nonprofit and corporate boards, including those of the National Gallery, the National Building Museum, the Kennedy Center and Paramount Communications Inc., an entertainment and communications company.

Controversies erupting since he became secretary included a proposal - shelved in May under pressure from scientists, animal lovers and several members of Congress - to close an endangered-species research center the National Zoo operates on 3,200 acres at Front Royal, Va. (Mr. Small announced his decision to drop the plan a day before its consideration by regents.) The regents did approve his proposal to close the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, which researches the science and techniques of conserving museum objects.

Mr. Small has aggressively pursued funding for the Smithsonian from both Congress and private sources. He also expects museum directors to step up their fund raising.

Several top administrators have left during Mr. Small's tenure. The directors of the Zoo, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, have retired or announced plans to do so, although none publicly tied their departures to Mr. Small. Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History, however, said in June he was resigning because he disagreed with Mr. Small about the way research should be conducted at the museum.

Mr. Small's fund-raising successes have included $10 million in donations that brought two giant pandas from China to the National Zoo for 10 years and the quick creation of the exhibit "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" at the National Museum of American History.

Mr. Small has called the Smithsonian fusty and desperately in need of repairs and vitality to meet the challenges of a new millennium. His critics, he says, are resistant to change.

Staff members, concerned about the influence of big donors on exhibits and what they fear is the pursuit of blockbuster exhibits at the expense of the Smithsonian's research mission, have created a Web site to list their grievances. The Smithsonian has about 6,500 employees. …

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