January 17th, 2002

Open Letter Berates Smithsonian's Small

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post

Lawrence Small, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution criticized for leading the museum into a new era of commercialization and corporate sponsorship, was attacked by a group of 170 scholars, authors and academics yesterday.  In an open letter to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is the chancellor of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, the group contended that Small was “unwilling or unable to carry out the mission of the Smithsonian, or to safeguard its integrity.”

The letter, signed by scholars from the nation’s top universities, authors and at least one former director of a major Smithsonian museum, faulted Small for allowing corporate and individual sponsors to have what the letter argued was too much say in the content of exhibitions they sponsor, and for allowing corporations to place their logos on Smithsonian buildings, exhibition halls and other spaces.

“If Mr. Small is permitted to continue his agenda, the Smithsonian will become much like a shopping mall, with virtually every inch devoted to the promotion of a corporation or its products,” the letter says. 

Rehnquist could not be reached for comment. Small released a statement asserting the Smithsonian’s intellectual independence from its sponsors.

“Maintaining the integrity of the Smithsonian, and the public’s trust, is of paramount importance and the Smithsonian’s policies reflect our commitment to this important principle,” Small said. “The Smithsonian regents and staff control, without limitation and question, the institution’s activities. They determine the content of its exhibits and programs, the public expects to see exhibitions created with the full scholarship of the Smithsonian behind them, and we remain totally committed to meeting that expectation.”

The letter attacking Small originated with Commercial Alert, a watchdog group devoted to keeping commercial culture “within its proper sphere.” Consumer advocate Ralph Nader serves as chairman of the group’s advisory board.

The letter is only the most recent in a series of contentious debates about the future of the Smithsonian.

Since Small became secretary in January 2000, he has been attacked in prominent editorials in the nation’s newspapers and by scholars and conservators both inside and outside the institution. Particularly contentious have been recent donations from Fuji Photo Film ($ 7.8 million for the “Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat"), Kmart (for a traveling exhibition devoted to African American music, emblazoned with the corporate logo) and from the philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds ($ 38 million to the National Museum of American History for a “hall of achievers” celebrating the success of prominent Americans).

But it was a $ 10 million gift from General Motors, for the General Motors Hall of Transportation at the Museum of American History, that prompted the current letter.

“It is just such a lurid example of the commercial that it tipped many of us over the edge,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. “It leads us to question not just the accuracy and fairness of the Hall of Transportation, but the whole Smithsonian.”

Commercial sponsorship of museum exhibitions is nothing new, and in 1992, before Small’s tenure, the Smithsonian took $ 500,000 for the O. Orkin Insect Zoo in the Natural History Museum. But as Small has encouraged more and more solicitation of corporate sponsorship (and, according to Commercial Alert, even distributed a memo detailing naming opportunities for Smithsonian buildings), momentum has built to keep the Smithsonian separate from the commercialization that has become mainstream at many of the nation’s museums, zoos and cultural centers. 

Critics argue that the Smithsonian, which receives about 70 percent of its budget from the federal government, must remain independent of corporate sponsorship to preserve its intellectual integrity.

It’s not just a matter of vulgar logos and appearance of possible influence on exhibits, said Milo Beach, former director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries.

“One of the strengths of the Smithsonian is being able to present topics that are simply not of interest to the corporate community because they don’t advance corporate interests,” said Beach, who left the Freer and Sackler in October. He cited the nation’s need to learn more, and quickly, about the Islamic world as one example.

“Things having to do with the Islamic world are very, very touchy in the corporate community, but there is nothing that Americans need to know about more right now than the Islamic world. If you can’t get corporations to support it, Americans are the poorer for it. The Smithsonian needs the leeway and the freedom to make decisions about what it feels is important.”

The Smithsonian Board of Regents is scheduled to meet Tuesday, after which Small will address the press.

January 17th, 2002

Open Letter Berates Smithsonian's Small

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post

Lawrence Small, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution criticized for leading the museum into a new era of commercialization and corporate sponsorship, was attacked by a group of 170 scholars, authors and academics yesterday.  In an open letter to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is the chancellor of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, the group contended that Small was “unwilling or unable to carry out the mission of the Smithsonian, or to safeguard its integrity.”

The letter, signed by scholars from the nation’s top universities, authors and at least one former director of a major Smithsonian museum, faulted Small for allowing corporate and individual sponsors to have what the letter argued was too much say in the content of exhibitions they sponsor, and for allowing corporations to place their logos on Smithsonian buildings, exhibition halls and other spaces.

“If Mr. Small is permitted to continue his agenda, the Smithsonian will become much like a shopping mall, with virtually every inch devoted to the promotion of a corporation or its products,” the letter says. 

Rehnquist could not be reached for comment. Small released a statement asserting the Smithsonian’s intellectual independence from its sponsors.

“Maintaining the integrity of the Smithsonian, and the public’s trust, is of paramount importance and the Smithsonian’s policies reflect our commitment to this important principle,” Small said. “The Smithsonian regents and staff control, without limitation and question, the institution’s activities. They determine the content of its exhibits and programs, the public expects to see exhibitions created with the full scholarship of the Smithsonian behind them, and we remain totally committed to meeting that expectation.”

The letter attacking Small originated with Commercial Alert, a watchdog group devoted to keeping commercial culture “within its proper sphere.” Consumer advocate Ralph Nader serves as chairman of the group’s advisory board.

The letter is only the most recent in a series of contentious debates about the future of the Smithsonian.

Since Small became secretary in January 2000, he has been attacked in prominent editorials in the nation’s newspapers and by scholars and conservators both inside and outside the institution. Particularly contentious have been recent donations from Fuji Photo Film ($ 7.8 million for the “Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat"), Kmart (for a traveling exhibition devoted to African American music, emblazoned with the corporate logo) and from the philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds ($ 38 million to the National Museum of American History for a “hall of achievers” celebrating the success of prominent Americans).

But it was a $ 10 million gift from General Motors, for the General Motors Hall of Transportation at the Museum of American History, that prompted the current letter.

“It is just such a lurid example of the commercial that it tipped many of us over the edge,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. “It leads us to question not just the accuracy and fairness of the Hall of Transportation, but the whole Smithsonian.”

Commercial sponsorship of museum exhibitions is nothing new, and in 1992, before Small’s tenure, the Smithsonian took $ 500,000 for the O. Orkin Insect Zoo in the Natural History Museum. But as Small has encouraged more and more solicitation of corporate sponsorship (and, according to Commercial Alert, even distributed a memo detailing naming opportunities for Smithsonian buildings), momentum has built to keep the Smithsonian separate from the commercialization that has become mainstream at many of the nation’s museums, zoos and cultural centers. 

Critics argue that the Smithsonian, which receives about 70 percent of its budget from the federal government, must remain independent of corporate sponsorship to preserve its intellectual integrity.

It’s not just a matter of vulgar logos and appearance of possible influence on exhibits, said Milo Beach, former director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries.

“One of the strengths of the Smithsonian is being able to present topics that are simply not of interest to the corporate community because they don’t advance corporate interests,” said Beach, who left the Freer and Sackler in October. He cited the nation’s need to learn more, and quickly, about the Islamic world as one example.

“Things having to do with the Islamic world are very, very touchy in the corporate community, but there is nothing that Americans need to know about more right now than the Islamic world. If you can’t get corporations to support it, Americans are the poorer for it. The Smithsonian needs the leeway and the freedom to make decisions about what it feels is important.”

The Smithsonian Board of Regents is scheduled to meet Tuesday, after which Small will address the press.

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