Buying Into The Nation’s Attic

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The Smithsonian Institution’s decision to establish a Hall of Fame of American Achievers at its Museum of American History, to be paid for with $38 million from a financial-services entrepreneur, has ignited a furor among the museum’s staff. The donor, Catherine B. Reynolds, has some definite ideas about what shape the permanent exhibit (to be called “The Spirit of America”) should take, and she plans to use her considerable influence to put them into effect. For example, her eclectic list of potential Hall of Famers ranges from Martha Stewart to Michael Jordan.

While the museum will retain final authority, such basic matters as the exhibit’s design and location must be approved by the donor. When it comes to choosing inductees, Reynolds will appoint io of the selection committee’s 15 members (subject to approval by the Smithsonian’s regents), and in keeping with her philosophy of “entrepreneurial” and “hands-on” philanthropy, she intends to include herself among them. If this were the magazine business, we would call the project a special advertising section. Or as a group of staff members asked in a memorandum, “Will the Smithsonian Institution actually allow private funders to rent space in a public museum for the expression of private interests and personal views?”

With such a clear vision of how her money should be spent, the question naturally arises why Reynolds didn’t simply establish her own museum. That’s what Albert Barnes did in 192.2., and to this day curators at the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pennsylvania, continue to observe his directions regarding the paintings that will be displayed and even their exact placement on the walls. The answer, of course, is that Reynolds has given up a measure of control in order to take advantage of the Smithsonian’s reputation, marketing, and expertise.

There is nothing new about such arrangements, at the Smithsonian or elsewhere. After all, the institution was founded by James Smithson, a British chemist who ensured himself of eternal renown with a bequest of a little more than £100,000. Many of the Smithsonian’s member institutions also bear the names and retain the philosophies of their wealthy founders. A more accurate criticism of the Reynolds agreement, for those who disagree with it, would be not that the Smithsonian sold itself but that it sold itself too cheaply.

Yet public-sector funding, which makes up about 70 percent of the Smithsonian’s budget, creates its own conflicts, as was seen with the Enola Gay controversy of the mid-1990s. Like most workers, the Smithsonian’s professional staff see themselves as the best judges of how their jobs should be done, while the people who control their funding, whether rich or elected, believe history is too important to be left to historians.

The genius of the Smithsonian Institution has always been the way it has blended the contributions and concerns of its curators, private donors, and the general public. If Ms. Reynolds’s Hall of Fame inspires the Smithsonian to sell vanity museums under its imprimatur like McDonald’s franchises, the cause of history will surely be hurt. But if, as seems likely, it leads to an honest assessment of how historians, donors, the government, and the public can work together more effectively, the episode will end up benefiting everyone.

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