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Save the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution needs to add an "s" to the word Institution to properly explain that it is not a single entity. In fact, it is a multifaceted entity made up of 19 museums, 9 research centers and a zoo. Founded in 1846, it has grown in scope through the years. Now, however, it is in a most troublesome economic condition and, in fact, has become a valued cultural entity whose very existence is threatened.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees the Smithsonian, has sounded some dire warnings about the viability of this great institution. Sen. Diane Feinstein, chairman of the committee, and an avid supporter of the Smithsonian, has said it must adopt a new system of governance and a more aggressive fundraising strategy rather than expecting the federal government to fund the enormous bill needed to fix its facilities, primarily the all-important and popular museums.

Currently the Smithsonian gets 70 percent of its annual operating budget from the federal government. The current fiscal budget allocated $634.9 million to the Smithsonian, and the institution is hoping that will be increased by about $100 million. That's very unlikely to occur, as President Bush has proposed an increase of only $44 million.

The Smithsonian says it needs some $2.5 billion for reconstruction, revitalization and maintenance projects to bring its facilities up to date.

It is obvious that these dollars will not come from the federal government and the only hope would come from a significant infusion of funds from private investors and other foundations.

Feinstein pulls no punches in her evaluation of the Institute. "You have an endangered institution. You have an institution that is clearly under-funded. It's got real problems that have got to be solved or they're only going to compound and get worse."

The recent allegations of extravagant spending by its top official, Lawrence Small, which led to his resignation, certainly have been harmful to the Smithsonian and undermine its pleas for more federal financing.

Supporters of the Smithsonian are hopeful that a new panel created in March will result in some positives that could help to change the institution's image. It is being headed up by Patty Stonesifer, the cochairman of Bill and Melinda Gates' highly successful and well-run Microsoft Foundation. The panel is charged with evaluating the bylaws of the Smithsonian and measuring them against the best practices of well run foundations Stonesifer already has taken steps to restrict apparently personal uses of Smithsonian funds.

The panel, I believe, also should look at the makeup of the Smithsonian Institution's board. It has 17 members and includes six members of Congress, the vice president of the United States and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Feinstein questions the ability of many board members to focus any of their attention on the Smithsonian. "I wonder," she says, "if they can dedicate the time, the attention that is so desperately needed." The senator has placed the spotlight on a problem that must be corrected if the Smithsonian is to live and prosper.

The composition of the board was established in 1846 with the founding of the institution. Now, 161 years later, it's time to review the needs of the institution and set up a board that will function properly. America's oldest and most comprehensive cultural entity needs to flourish, not flounder. Hopefully fresh new blood on its board would encourage the nation's wealthiest to assign some of their dollars each year to make all the institutions of the Smithsonian Institution viable and economically healthy.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News

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