Outside editorial: America's attic is rotting within the Smithsonian

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2007

Any responsible property owner faced with a leaky roof or faulty wiring would figure out some way to undertake the repairs. Not so the caretakers of the nation's treasures at the Smithsonian Institution. Their failure to come up with a viable plan for the upkeep of Smithsonian facilities has resulted in a $2.5 billion backlog of needed repairs. Not only has this caused public access restrictions, but precious collections also are imperiled.

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A frightening picture of the crumbling facilities emerges from a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. A lack of temperature controls at the Air and Space Museum caused corrosion of historic airplanes; inadequate fire protection systems at the National Zoo placed animals at risk.

Recurring roof leaks have shut down exhibits as workers scramble to protect artifacts. Since the last GAO report in 2005, there have been improvements, but sadly they have been overshadowed by intractable, long-term problems. Estimates for facilities projects through 2013 increased from $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion, and no good funding plan exists.

Maintenance is always an easy item to defer. For years, Congress failed to provide adequate funding while still demanding an expansion of programs and facilities. Nevertheless, the institution's Board of Regents is ultimately responsible, and it was wrong to insist that under the unique public-private partnership that constitutes the Smithsonian, facilities repairs and upgrades were to be paid for solely with federal, not private, dollars.

To make matters worse, the board refused to seriously consider raising private money for the work. It's unrealistic to expect Congress to make $2.5 billion available now, and such a request would be unseemly given the board's poor stewardship of the institution.

That the Smithsonian could come up with money to patch the roof of the private home of its former secretary but not to plug a leak in its public art galleries is simply indefensible.

The GAO rightly characterizes the Smithsonian as being at a crossroads and urges that a workable financing strategy be developed in partnership with Congress. There are encouraging signs of progress from the regents, who have created a standing committee to deal with the facilities issue and are actively working on private fund-raising initiatives - some of which were scorned in the past.

Part of that disinterest derived from a belief that people don't give money to fix roofs or rewire rooms. Perhaps so, but no one should underestimate Americans' interest, or generosity, in saving their country's treasures.

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