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Smithsonian Perspectives

Some reflections on the first year in office — and a look at the likely changes and challenges facing us

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The following is adapted from the Secretary's progress report to the Institution staff in October:

My first year in the role of Secretary seems simultaneously to have begun yesterday and a decade ago. I can hardly remember doing anything else; yet I don't know where the year went.

Three major events have punctuated the year for us. First, somewhat unexpectedly, leadership changed in Congress, and we had to get to know a whole new group of legislators and staff whose actions could deeply affect us. Second, the Enola Gay episode exploded, raising other issues as well, and dominated attention internally and externally; we were uncertain whether the Smithsonian would continue to be cherished in the light of so much negative publicity. Third, it became apparent that Congress (in a fairly bipartisan way) was going to take serious action to tame the federal budget deficit, that our own budget was to be affected negatively, and that we would have to concentrate on where to reduce operations in order to live within a lower appropriation.

At present, it appears that we have established a good relationship with our oversight and appropriation committees and others in the legislature. This is evidenced by fair treatment in the budget process, real participation by our Congressional Regents, both old and new, at Institution events including Regents' meetings, and a showing of great interest in many of our activities by the Speaker, other legislators and key Congressional staff.

The Enola Gay imbroglio was an enormous trial, especially for a new Secretary. Reverberations will continue, notably in learned journals. Whatever the merits of my final decision (which I believe was correct), the conflict has required us to question anew how to respect scholarly integrity and also to assure our general and specific publics that when we deal in controversial areas, we are not using exhibitions to inculcate a particular viewpoint. This is no easy task. The conference we cosponsored with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor last April explored many sides of the issues. The exhibition guidelines we fashioned together set forth useful processes. But there is no substitute for good judgment and a disposition to try to be objective, no matter how hard the quest. Some are worried that the Smithsonian's reputation in the academic world has been harmed by the change in the exhibit. Let me emphasize that I do not urge the avoidance of all potentially controversial exhibitions. When they are done well, they respect both the subject and the audience, and promote genuine understanding of tough issues.

Our budget problems are real. We received sympathetic treatment in Congress, at a time when both sides of the political aisle were seriously addressing the budget deficit. At this writing, Congress has saved the planned Cultural Resources Center of the National Museum of the American Indian (although its completion will also require the expenditure of some private funds raised by the museum), increased our repair-and-renovation budget by 30 percent (a welcome enhancement to address serious facility problems), and appropriated enough money to finance serious planning and feasibility studies for a National Air and Space Museum extension at Dulles International Airport. At the same time, Congress effectively cut our base budget by failing to fund mandatory wage and inflationary increases (true of most federal agencies). This will result in a base reduction of 4 to 5 percent in our budget.

If one could predict that the base cut was a one-year phenomenon and that losses would be replaced in the future, we could stand pat and do little to reduce our expenditure patterns. But we cannot make that prediction. It is clear that changes in the management structure and style of the Institution are required to prepare it for the challenges of the 21st century. The changes required are not minor. A change in the organization's culture is a paramount necessity. Some of that change will result from restructuring organizational units — the flattening out of management levels. Other changes will result from increased decentralization and delegation of authority to the museums and research institutes. We must continue to reconfigure ourselves and to make permanent reductions. The Strategic Planning Committee that we formed this summer is discussing and evaluating possible future consolidations and privatizations.

I end this report with a good deal of enthusiasm for the 150th-anniversary celebration, which features a wonderful traveling exhibition that will bring the Smithsonian to people around the country. I hope that the activities will both reinforce the splendor and importance of the Institution in the minds of Americans and lead to expanded private support for our undertakings. Our future health depends on a generous private sector to enhance our public resource base.

By I. Michael Heyman

 

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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