Friday, August 26, 2005

Smithsonian in trouble

According to an article snippet forwarded to me from a friend, this appeared in the New York Times on August 25, 2005:

Ominous drips from strained expansion joints have sprinkled down amid Asian artifacts in the institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The historic Arts and Industries Building is closed to visitors to protect them from metal panels dropping from its beautiful but dilapidated ceiling. At the National Air and Space Museum, a water stain mars the Lilienthal hang glider that inspired the Wright Brothers to fly. Even the 1940's prototypes of what was to become seemingly indestructible Tupperware were irreparably damaged in a plumbing breakdown.

The world's largest museum complex, the Smithsonian includes 18 museums and galleries, 10 science centers and a zoological park. It is charged with conserving and displaying the country's treasures, both grand and whimsical - the Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry, bits of moon rock from the earliest space missions, the "puffy shirt" worn by Jerry Seinfeld in his hit television series.

But years of inadequate financing and maintenance have led to widespread disrepair that is imperiling the collections, institution officials say.

My friend added this comment:
The whole article makes for very sad reading. But as a nation, it is
what we want, apparently. “No More Taxes” inevitably means “No More
Financing for the Smithsonian”. Ah well, as the NASM rots, we can enjoy
that big SUV...
I was going to reply to my friend, but didn't want to start a political discussion, so instead I'll vent here.

No more taxes? You've seen no more taxes? I sure as hell haven't - I saw a extra refund a few years back (then saw massive deficit spending, but that's another essay), then my tax bill got higher than it ever has. I've seen government on every level do everything it can to squeeze more taxes out of me (the recent Kelo decision is the latest attempt), even when I've voted to pass laws saying it can't. I've seen the IRS bill me for ten large (that's $10,000) because it didn't like the fact that I only reported my income once (that's right, they were counting some of my income twice and thought I owed them more). If my tax money isn't going to fix the Smithsonian buildings, I wonder where it is going. Hopefully it's not being used to force democracy on a sovereign nation halfway around the world.

I'm also wondering why my friend decided to send this out to everyone - shouldn't he be whipping out his checkbook and writing a big fat one off to the Smithsonian to help? I mean, this is something near and dear to his heart, right? Couldn't he give extra money to the government for a specific purpose? Of course, if it were a private institution, this would be no problem - donations of this sort are done privately all the time.

That brings up another issue - do privately held museums have this problem? The Museum of Flight in Seattle is owned by Boeing Aircraft - wonder if they've let their building deteriorate to the point where it's causing irreparable damage to exhibits and holdings. What kind of museum curator lets his building fall down around his ears? Does he not care about the exhibits? Where does the money the Smithsonian does take in go? Do they charge admission on top of the government handout? That's still not enough? Who's overseeing the accounting? How much is the curator's salary? The salary of others who work there? Will they take a pay cut to preserve the artifacts they've been hired to preserve? Can the labor force be reduced to cut costs, or are all they all "civil servants", basically tenured for life? I'm thinking that the Museum has no shareholders to answer to, and the money is free, so why should the curator care? It's not like his salary depends on the number of people paying admission - if it did, he'd be working on better exhibits than Tupperware and Seinfeld's shirt (preserving the first is ironic, preserving the second is just silly and pointless) in order to get more people interested and coming to the museums. In other words, if he had a selfish self-interest in the success of the Museum (i.e. ownership, or some part of his livelihood tied to ownership), this wouldn't be happening.

There are three things to do - let it fall and lose all those exhibits (I'm appalled by that idea as well, although Indiana Jones' fedora can crumble to dust for all I care); funnel more money into it (maybe we can pass the hat around for donations - let's start with our service men and women in Iraq and see what they think); or sell it to a private party to fix, preserve, and profit from.

Instead of whining, my friend should be forming a private organization, dedicated to raising money to buy the Museum and put it in private hands. Contract with the government to preserve citizen access to the exhibits, but allow it to show a profit, attract investors, and purchase new holdings and exhibits to keep the whole thing running. If he cared enough about it, this is what he'd be doing - as it is, he cares just enough to whine that no one else is helping...

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