CHARGE ME: "It's been said before," says a fairly high staffer in the Smithsonian's Construction and Design division, with whom I just happen to share a picnic table while lunching in downtown Washington.
She's referring to my suggestion that admission be charged to the Smithsonian's many museums to help with the big bills. "Did you know," she asks, "that the roof on the National Gallery is leaking?"
The mission of the Smithsonian Institution, established in 1846, was to promote "the diffusion of knowledge among men." A grand plan.
My lunchtime acquaintance--chatty until I whip out my reporter's pad--says, "We really need more money or the buildings will fall down around us." Her office estimates that over the next five or 10 years the Smithsonian will need a half billion bucks to put those buildings in shape. With the money Congress has offered, around $25 million, she says they can keep the buildings from falling down but can't repair them. "Oil paintings don't do well with leaking roofs," she reminds me.
Her argument that it's always been free, that "it's important to the mission of the Smithsonian to have the most public access," is admirable, but keeping the admission, say, under a dollar is not limiting access. Pushed to our country's financial limits, we must begin to think creatively and frugally, words I normally despise on an end-of-the-monthly basis.
The staffer remains unconvinced, so I mosey over to an organizer at the Festival of American Folklife which is spread on the mall. He says it's an annual event the Smithsonian sponsors for 10 days at a cost of around $2 million or more, this year featuring Cape Verde and the Czech Republic.
It's kind of a Tucson Meet Yourself with music and crafts from the two countries represented, including a few tired Cape Verdean alembíc makers--a metal craft used mainly for making stills--and a lone Czech woodworker building a bell tower which will end up in Texas.
The organizer attempts to thrill me with the difficulty of bringing the Cape Verdeans here, some of whom have never left their island. The clay pot woman is so exhausted, she ignores two questions from him. "And this is real clay from Cape Verde," he says.
"I wonder how much they paid to fly that dirt over here?" mocks a former state department employee accompanying me.
To be fair, there are other sponsors, like the struggling Cape Verdean government and the Ford Motor Company. And it is globally enriching.
But don't do it every year. Save $2 million for a few years and add that to the building budget. Repair a roof this year, a staircase next year. That's what those of us back home in Nacodoches and Tucson and Bolton Landing are doing. Most of us don't house national treasures, but we do have leaking roofs over our children's heads. Beg for more money on the hill, but don't overlook the quarters.
Anybody for museum lotto, warriors?
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