Making the Smithsonian an even more splendid presence on the American landscape than ever before

The Smithsonian Building
Wikimedia Commons

Though what visitors see of the world’s largest museum and research complex—the Smithsonian’s 16 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park—is of remarkably impressive scale, what’s publicly visible is by no means the whole. The Institution’s physical enterprise—the working environment for 6,000 staff members and 5,000 volunteers—encompasses more than 400 buildings (nearly eight million square feet of space) in seven states, the District of Columbia and Panama.

The prodigious task of maintaining this great complex would be daunting enough if the buildings were new. But more than half of the Smithsonian’s buildings and systems (for plumbing, electricity, climate control) are between 25 and 40 years old, and the foundations of our earliest buildings date from the 19th century. The cornerstone for the Smithsonian Castle was laid in 1847, and its next-door neighbor, the Arts and Industries Building, was built in 1881. The sprawling (now 1.3 million square feet) beaux arts National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) across the Mall opened in 1910. The National Zoo was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted and William Ralph Emerson, which gives it inestimable historic importance, but its water system also dates to the 1890s. Historic sites and buildings are both a glory and a burden: the costs of even minimal restoration, to which their significance commits us, are far higher than the costs of repair to more ordinary structures and systems.

In addition to the inevitable depredations of age, the Smithsonian’s astonishing popularity also has consequences for the physical health of its buildings. We welcome tens of millions of visitors each year, and doors can take only so many swings, carpets so many feet, paint so many curious hands. Fall behind in the process of maintaining, restoring and revitalizing facilities, and you court disaster: "deferred maintenance" is another term for "sure trouble." In recent decades, when budgets were strained, we put off for just one more year that overdue roof repair or electrical upgrade. The result? A new internal report on our physical plant concludes that half the Institution’s buildings are in unacceptable condition.

Soon after I became Secretary in 2000, I told Congress, which provides two-thirds of the Smithsonian’s operating funds, that to deal with the Institution’s physical needs would require an additional $500 million over the coming decade. Within a year, I had revised my estimate—to $1 billion. Congress was rightly surprised, not least because from 1996 to 2000, it had appropriated, and the Smithsonian had productively used, some $208 million in new funds for repair and restoration. So Congress asked an independent organization, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), to investigate the Smithsonian’s facilities program. NAPA issued its report this past July, and it confirmed the worst—which may be the best thing that could have happened.

NAPA properly took the Institution to task for letting our fundamental maintenance responsibilities get away from us. At the same time, it concluded that our internal estimates had been too low: not a billion dollars, but with inflation, a billion and a half, and perhaps more, will be needed for the repair, restoration and alteration of Smithsonian facilities in the next ten years.

Even as we stand chastened by the NAPA report, we are tremendously energized by it as well. It is an objective, external validation of our own assessments, and it has brought an unprecedented clarity to an inexorable need, which worsens the longer it is left unattended. So we intend to get on with the rescue operation—till the burnishing makes the Smithsonian an even more splendid presence on the American landscape than ever before.

By Lawrence M. Small, Secretary

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.