The world's biggest museum is falling down

The Smithsonian in Washington may have a world-famous reputation, but its buildings are crumbling. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent US

These three museums are part of the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world, and one of the most prestigious. It includes 18 museums and galleries, 10 science centres, and a zoo, and, in addition to the swathe of locations in the nation's capital, the institution owns and leases buildings in New York, Massachusetts, Arizona, Florida and Panama.

At the last count its wealth of history, art and culture contained more than 136 million items, and it is no exaggeration to say that its officials and curators have the privilege and responsibility of taking care of the most precious of America's treasures. Everything from the original star-spangled banner that flew over Fort McHenry (and which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words that would be adopted as the country's national anthem) to the leather jacket worn by The Fonz in the television series Happy Days are under their supervision.

And yet this complex, which famously and rather fantastically does not charge visitors to enter its main exhibitions, is facing severe problems. Years of inadequate funding and a failure to oversee and ensure proper maintenance - combined with that bullish dedication that entry should be free - has led to widespread disrepair, which officials say threatens the treasures the Smithsonian cares for.

Worse still, officials estimate that it will require an astonishing $2.3bn (£1.3bn) of investment over the next decade if the long-term well-being and safety of the museums and their collections are to be ensured. Congress this year increased annual funding for the institution to $615.2m (£350m) - roughly what our government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport spends on 17 national museums. So far, though, there is no consensus among senior officials in Washington on how the additional funding for the longer-term will be obtained.

Oddly enough, the problems facing the Smithsonian may not be obvious to the majority of the 20 million or so visitors who pour through the doors of the institution's museums every year. At the wonderful air and space museum on the National Mall on an autumn afternoon and one is easily charmed by the exhibitions that feature everything from the Apollo moon landings to the feats of the courageous but ultimately ill-fated Amelia Earhart. There is a display on the Wright brothers and another that features the helicopter that was used by Henry Ross Perot - the son of the two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot - when he co-piloted the first chopper to fly around the world. (The sight of one of the brown leather jackets she wore is enough to make one stop and ponder.) In this museum, at least, one has to look hard to find anything amiss. One might be persuaded that the accident that befell Lilienthal's glider was an isolated incident.

But a report published earlier this year by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative wing of Congress, makes plain the scale of the problems facing the institution. Among a litany of miseries, it points out that, in addition to the closure of the Arts and Industries Building and parts of the National Zoo, a number of storage facilities are off-limits because of concerns about asbestos, artefacts have been damaged, and officials have struggled to maintain the required temperature and humidity levels in some of the older facilities. It adds: "These problems are indicative of a broad decline in the Smithsonian's ageing facilities and systems that pose a serious long-term threat to the collections."

Mark Goldstein, the chief author of the GAO report, has said that there was sense in which officials at the Smithsonian were holding their breath and hoping for the best. He said that they had been lucky to avoid any disastrous problems so far, but that their luck might not hold.

The Smithsonian was founded as the result of a bequest by a British scientist, James Smithson, who, when drawing up his will and naming his nephew as his beneficiary, stated that, if the young man should die without his own heirs, the money should "go to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men". Fortunately for the US, his nephew died in 1835 without an heir. The Smithsonian's website points out that the motives behind Smithson's bequest are mysterious. He never travelled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone here. "Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated in part by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father's name," it says.

More than 150 years after the establishment of the institution, officials concede that there is a considerable problem, and say that they are examining ways to achieve a turnaround without having to introduce entry charges. The Board of Regents - the governing body - has recently been considering such charges for the first time since the Smithsonian was established, though the proposal has been voted down. Sheila Burke, the deputy secretary and chief operating officer, said recently: "These are the nation's treasures. Ultimately we feel protecting them is a federal responsibility."

Becky Haberacker, a spokeswoman for the institution, told The Independent that there are a number of buildings used to house collections that date from the 19th century and that maintenance was an ongoing challenge: "Some are older and in need of repair. There is a lot of different work we need to do to keep them in good condition. We are having problems." At the same time, she said, the institution was examining ways of using the money it receives more effectively. Of the latest appropriation from Congress, almost $100m (£60m) was earmarked for repairs and restorations. There remained strong opposition, she said, to the introduction of charges, and officials were committed to maintaining its tradition of easy access. "It's come up a few times but every time it gets voted down," she explained.

The problems facing the Smithsonian have wider implications. The museum complex is undoubtedly among the most impressive and important in the world, and the institution's dedication to educational opportunities - allied to its commitment to free entry - have made it a inspiration for museums across the US and the globe.

Ed Able, the president of the American Association of Museums, said the institution had provided an example to many other museums and had - in its early days - established areas of best practice. "The Smithsonian has always been a leading light for the American museum community," he said. Judy Aitken, the policy officer with the London-based Museums Association, added: "The Smithsonian is way ahead in terms of top-notch curation and research. It's certainly seen as something of a pinnacle in terms of its attention to preservation and conservation... [so its problems are] not good news."