Smithsonian at 150 and still growing 16 museums plus: The keeper of what the nation thinks is important.


ONE AMENITY of Baltimore life is the Smithsonian Institution, just down I-95, a bunch of magnificent free museums and a zoo. It is what to do on a gloomy February weekend. It is Congress' subsidy of municipal Washington and the attendant tourism and suburbia. Its free admission, sacrosanct as long as congressmen have visiting constituents, is a damper on competitive museums here that must charge admission. And one more thing: The Smithsonian is also a mirror held up to the nation, a reflection of its values, a measure of what it deems important.

The self-congratulation with which the Smithsonian greeted the 150th anniversary of the 1846 law establishing it barely hides its self-doubt. Now 16 museums and a zoo, international scientific research establishments, 140 million objects, 6,700 employees, 28 million annual visitors and a $496 million budget (three-fourths from federal taxpayers), the Smithsonian is planning two more museums, on American Indians and on African Americans, and will then have run out of Mall.

That does not mean it will never establish another, because every congressman with a failing museum in his district sees it as savior. But the future lies more in traveling shows, the Web and technology not yet introduced.

After the anguished national debate on the Enola Gay exhibit at the Air and Space Museum, a troubled Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian reported in May 1995 that "these challenges can be better understood by recognizing that the Smithsonian is an educational forum rather than a cultural or scientific authority or even a home for congratulations."

All this grew out of the foresight of English astronomer James Smithson, who never set foot in this hemisphere. In his will of 1826 he left 105 bags of old English coins, in the event a nephew died childless (as he soon did), to the United States for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Congress voted in 1836 to accept the gift, about a half million dollars of that day, and 10 years later to create the institution. The Smithsonian began as a museum of arts and industry and a lecture series.

Not merely the nation's attic, the Smithsonian is a window on the nation's soul. And if you missed the anniversary, they will celebrate the 150th all over again in nine years, commemorating the opening of the first Museum, now the "Castle" headquarters. More fireworks in 2005!

Pub Date: 9/02/96

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