August 6th, 2002

Commercializing the 'Attic'; Too Many Corporate Names at the Smithsonian

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It’s time for Congress to put a stop to the excessive commercialization of “the nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

In the past three years, the national museum and science center, under the leadership of Lawrence M. Small, avidly has sought corporate money in exchange for plastering the names of contributors on various facilities.

Examples include the Lockheed Martin IMAX theater and the General Motors Hall of Transportation, $10 million each, and the Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat at the National Zoo, run by the Smithsonian, $7.8 million. Earlier this year, visitors to the natural history museum received guides featuring an advertisement promoting oil drilling in Alaska, paid for by Phillips Petroleum.

Such corporate hucksterism was not what was envisioned by James Smithson, the English scientist who bequeathed his fortune to the federal government in 1829 to establish an institution for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

In January, a coalition of scholars sent a letter to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Smithsonian’s chancellor, to protest the way the institution “has allowed its name to be used for donors’ commercial purposes, and let donors influence both the nature and content of exhibits. The result is an erosion of the Smithsonian’s integrity and of the public’s trust.”

Fortunately, two members of Congress upset about this trend are pressing legislation in the House to undertake some reforms at the Smithsonian, which gets 70 percent of its money from the federal government.

Reps. Norm Dicks of Washington, and David Obey of Wisconsin amended an appropriations bill to require reviews of the corporate agreements. Specifically, the two Democrats want to force the institution’s board of regents to look into returning the name on the IMAX theater to that of aviation pioneer Samuel P. Langley.

There is little doubt that the Smithsonian needs as much money as possible. Its buildings are crumbling, its irreplaceable exhibits need maintenance and improvement. Philanthropy is welcome, but not to the extent that commercial interests become paramount.


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