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Smithsonian's new Ocean Planet exhibit catches a wave: corporate sponsorship


A 30-foot walkway that gives visitors all the sights and sounds of plunging into the ocean -- as if inside a wave -- is a key attraction of Ocean Planet, the Smithsonian's newest exhibit.

The $4.1 million layout includes dioramas, videos and computer animation and speaks to the environmental crises that oceans are facing. But it is notable for a more important reason: Officials are hoping it represents a new wave of the future -- a closer collaboration between Smithsonian planners and corporate America.

In an age of governmental belt-tightening, the Smithsonian is turning more to the private sector to fulfill its dramatic show-and-tell mission to America and the world. No longer can officials expect Congress to provide more money each year.

"Is private support the wave of the future?" asks Tiane Benson, an associate director. "Certainly corporate support is of increasing importance to the Smithsonian and, in recent years we've seen more of it. We're on the wave, definitely."

The Smithsonian's current budget is $480 million, of which Congress appropriated 77 percent, or $371 million. Congress traditionally has been receptive to the needs of the 150-year-old institution, but every corner of the federal government is under pressure from GOP congressional cost-cutters. "We are no different from virtually every other quasi-government agency," one Smithsonian official said. "We are going to see our budget scrutinized."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, for one, has threatened just that. Infuriated with the Smithsonian's handling of a controversial exhibit on the 1945 atomic bombing of Japan, Mr. Stevens -- as chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee -- spoke at a recent hearing about "eroding public support" of the institution, even while describing himself as a supporter. Such controversies, he said, could hamper fund raising and lead to smaller federal appropriations.

To supplement government funding and income from a trust established in the early 1800s by scientist James Smithson, the institution raises more than $70 million annually from corporations, private foundations, individual donations and from its own business activities, such as gift shops, mail-order catalog and magazine.

Although the Smithsonian has sought corporate support before, Ocean Planet breaks new ground because the sponsors were heavily involved in the planning and execution of the exhibit and the related marketing.

The exhibit, at the institution's National Museum of Natural History, was primarily sponsored by four corporations -- Ford Motor Co., Motorola, the Discovery Channel and Times Mirror Co. It received additional funding from the National Science Foundation, Apple Computer Inc. and several charitable foundations.

"In view of cost considerations, it's not going to be possible for us to do exhibitions on the scale or quality of this one without some private support," Smithsonian official Randall Kremer said.

He said Smithsonian officials, however, "are sensitive about the right to be a sponsor, that it should not be open to the highest bidder." Financial support alone won't guarantee a partnership with the institution, he explained. "We don't want to be associated with a corporation, an individual or a foundation that has goals different from our own."

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