Congress’ recently enacted sequestration cuts funds at many federal agencies, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Secretary Wayne Clough announced today that sequestration would not affect public visiting hours nor result in staff layoffs, however, “we can no longer be the nation’s attic. Congress has provided us an ideal opportunity to re-examine the value of collections in our overburdened system.” Clough provided few details except that he has directed each of the Smithsonian’s departments to determine how to reduce their collections by 8 percent—the across-the-board amount adopted by Congress in the sequester.
Response by Smithsonian staff has been mixed. Most departments are still developing solutions but questions remain. The Smithsonian holds about 137 million artifacts, more than 90 percent in the National Museum of Natural History. “We’re currently uncertain if an 8 percent reduction applies to the quantity or volume,” said Terry Erwin, curator of coleoptera in the department of entomology. “We have hundreds of thousands of beetle specimens in sizes ranging from size of child’s shoe to the nearly invisible. I could easily remove the latter, but who would notice?”
Sorena S. Sorenson, geologist and curator-in-charge of rocks and ores, noted her collections includes specimens that weigh several tons. “Many of these large specimens are already placed outside around the museum. If Homeland Security allows me to redefine them as security bollards, I can easily reach my target with a few more specimens. You can’t do that with the Hope Diamond.”
At the National Museum of American History, director John Gray welcomed the challenge. “As a former banker, I know we can develop a strategy that not only meets Congress’ targets, but we can turn those surplus collections into assets.” As an example, he referred to the Star Spangled Banner. “We can remove one star and one stripe to meet the 8 percent goal, plus we can sell them to generate a profit,” he said enthusiastically. “The flag is in bad shape and already missing a star, so the changes won’t be noticed by the public. But the less there is, the more valuable it becomes. That’s supply and demand. That’s business thinking.”
The National Zoo, however, faces unusual challenges because their collection grows naturally. “We’ve placed a great emphasis on our breeding program, such as the Giant Pandas, for decades and the sequester throws a wrench into the works,” said Brandie Smith, senior curator. “I suppose we could introduce an abstinence program but these animals are, well, just animals.” Among the ideas under consideration are retiring elderly animals to other zoos, not entering animals into the collection until they are physically and emotionally mature, and a public-private partnership of foster care in the homes of nearby residents. No decisions have been made and all ideas have serious shortfalls. “We really can’t place a cheetah or tiger in a home with cats, dogs, or small children,” noted Smith with a sigh.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) applauded the Smithsonian’s efforts. “We got used to large collections. We got used to double-digit growth. I think we’ll get used to a level of austerity where the Smithsonian grows slower than inflation,” he said. “In the end, we’ll be better for it. If not, I’m an April Fool.”