Monday, November 19, 2007

What's the Smithsonian to do?

The Smithsonian just can't seem to catch a break. No stranger to controversies surrounding its exhibitions, or to criticism regarding its relationship with corporate sponsors or partnerships, within two days last week the Washington Post ran two articles about the relationship between the National Museum of Natural History, two of its exhibitions and their respective funding.

In the first article, the Smithsonian was criticized for altering the text of the 2006 exhibit on the Arctic in order to introduce a sense of ambiguity to current theories about global warming and extreme climate change. Some scientists are saying that these changes in the exhibit were blatant acts of pandering to certain members of Congress--from whom the Smithsonian receives the vast majority of its funding.

In the second article it was reported that the American Petroleum Institute rescinded its offer of $5 million for a new Ocean Initiative exhibition hall for NMNH. API made the announcement right after the first article had been published (possibly they were afraid of similar backlash?) and just before the Board of Regents were to vote on Monday (today) on whether or not to accept the donation. Two of the Regents had stated that they would vote against the donation, indicating that they were worried that petroleum money would "taint" the exhibition.

It's a tricky situation. On the one hand, the Smithsonian needs a lot of money in order to present exhibitions of the caliber that you would expect from the nation's museum. On the other hand, large sums of money often do require recognition at the least if not outright return on investment (ROI). Then throw in the constant whims of the political climate (since it is a federal agency) and you've got one fine line to walk.

It may be heresy, but honestly it's moments such as these that I wonder what would happen if museums broke away from the nonprofit model. More and more museum managers talk about running museums like businesses (and have been doing so for the past decade or so) and yet everyone still clings to the nonprofit model. As they go through reorganizations and professionalization, are they worried that the coveted 501(c)3 status is the proverbial baby that must not be thrown out with the bath water?

There are a (very) few museums in this nation that have either forgone nonprofit status or have been denied it (the Museum of Sex in New York City was informed by the State of New York that it couldn't possibly have an educational mission and so was denied nonprofit status; personally, I found it very educational) and so far they seem to be doing well. In fact, the International Spy Museum seems to be doing beyond well.

So what would happen if the Smithsonian privatized? Thoughts, anyone?

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