The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
Jun 2001


Plans for Smithsonian Reorganization Challenged

Reprinted with permission from the June 2001 issue of the AASLH Dispatch, p. 3, based on information provided by Bruce Craig, director of the NCCPH (National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History). This report is based on information available April 11. The text has been altered where necessary to indicate a later perspective, but the text has not been otherwise changed. -Ed.

In a recent NCC WASHINGTON UPDATE (see Vol. 7, #15, April 11, 2001) we reported on plans advanced by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small to reorganize the Smithsonian's scientific research programs. Offices and facilities scheduled to be closed include the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center (which works to save endangered species) in Front Royal, Virginia, the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, and art conservation laboratory, Smithsonian Productions (the center for the Institution's video, audio, and multi-media productions) and three offices in the Smithsonian libraries (including the Museum Support Center Branch in Suitland, Maryland). Overall, Small is seeking to eliminate about 180 jobs or about 2% of the present Smithsonian workforce of about 6,000 employees. Now though, it appears that Small's plans are running into stiff opposition from within the Smithsonian itself, from professional organizations, Congress, and the public.

Key opponents of the proposed closings include many members of the Smithsonian's scientific staff, 37 professional organizations, as well as powerful members of the Virginia congressional delegation including Senator John Warner (R-VA) and Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA). Wolf has called upon Small to reconsider his closure plans: "What makes the Smithsonian different from other museums and zoos is the history and research. This is the death of science and research at the Smithsonian." Hill insiders report that as a result of growing opposition, Smithsonian officials are quietly considering their options, including a scaled down plan that would stop short of a total closure of one or more of these offices and programs.

Because of his suggested closings, some critics are now questioning not just the Secretary's plans for the reorganization of research, but Small's fitness to oversee the Smithsonian. Small, an investment banker and past President of Fanny Mae, is only the second non-scientist to lead the Smithsonian in more than 150 years. His appointment was opposed by several professional organizations that, at the time of his appointment, argued that he lacked an understanding of the importance of research. Opposition to Small also centers on his managerial style and apparent inability to motivate staff. According to Storrs Olson, a senior ornithologist at the National Museum of Natural History, "In the short 15 months since he assumed that office he has become what is surely the most reviled and detested administrator in the Institution's history." Another scientist who asked that his name not be disclosed, believes Small's "dictatorial" management methods are not appropriate for the sprawling Smithsonian that includes such a diverse complex of museums ranging from art to history to science.

During his tenure, Small has taken on the role as reformer. He has publicly characterized some of the museums he oversees as "shabby" and has raised record amounts of money ($206 million last year) in an effort to move rapidly forward in order to attain his vision for the Smithsonian.

This year, for example, Small managed to get the Bush administration to support a 9% increase for the Smithsonian–to $494 million in FY 2002–but critics state that these funds have been earmarked for the Secretary's pet construction projects and salaries, and will not significantly contribute to a fundamental improvement to the complex of museums. Insiders report that some museums (including American History) will actually take cuts (for example, the museum is scheduled to lose 20 vacant positions including a curatorial position in social history).

Opposition to Small's plans came at a critical time in the budget cycle, as the Smithsonian's governing Board of Regents was scheduled to meet May 7 to consider Small's reorganization plans. Secretary Small has stated that he believes he has the support of his Board. In a recent press event, he defended the budget and his plans by stating that "the Regents have charged senior management with modernizing the Smithsonian and bringing it into the 21st century. That mandate is the basis for the Secretary's vision to improve public impact, management excellence, financial strength and first-class research."

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