Generosity and Standards

Donations to the Smithsonian Institution by benefactors who want to be involved in how their gifts are used have recently been in the headlines. But they would hardly have been news to James Smithson, the English scientist who bequeathed his estate to found the Institution that now bears his name. That the Smithsonian was named for its first donor is no coincidence. While it was a fitting display of gratitude for Smithson’s generosity, it was also a condition of his gift.

That historical fact provides a dose of perspective amid a certain amount of controversy over recent gifts to the Smithsonian: private donors have always played an integral part in the Smithsonian’s life—and part of that role has always been some degree of participation in the use of their gifts. Charles Freer placed limits on the acquisition and use of works of art in what became the Freer Gallery. Dr. Arthur M. Sackler and Joseph Hirshhorn were also involved in the formation of the world-class facilities on the National Mall that are named for them.

Similarly, Kenneth E. Behring and Catherine B. Reynolds—both of whom recently made sizable donations to the National Museum of American History—are following in the long-standing tradition that James Smithson began. Mr. Behring has pledged $80 million to the museum for a major renovation of its exhibitions. Ms. Reynolds has promised $38 million to build an exhibition that would highlight the personal histories and achievements of individual Americans who have excelled in science, the arts, public service and other areas of endeavor—Nobel Prize winners, Medal of Honor recipients, Presidential Medal of Freedom awardees and members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, for example.

Some at the National Museum of American History are concerned that conditions attached to the donations—such as the nature of Mr. Behring’s involvement in the revitalization of the museum and Ms. Reynolds’ participation in the process of deciding whom to honor in the exhibition on achievement—will somehow compromise the Smithsonian’s independence.

Those concerns deserve a forthright response. As I have emphatically stated, no financial contribution is worth the sacrifice of the public’s trust in the Smithsonian. And these donations do not in any way compromise our standards. While the Institution has continued its century-and-a-half-long tradition of allowing donors a say in the use of their gifts, it has ceded no control over either the content of exhibitions or final decision-making about the museum’s governance.

Many of the criticisms leveled against recent donations are based on erroneous information. For example, critics charge that the terms of Ms. Reynolds’ donation give her the power to appoint an advisory board for the exhibition. In fact, though, she has the power only to nominate candidates. No one may become a member of the advisory board without approval from the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, and the contract documenting the gift explicitly says the Institution’s staff will retain final control in the case of any dispute over the content of the exhibition.

A plan to renovate the National Museum of American History was envisioned well before Mr. Behring made his gift. His generosity now makes it possible to carry out this much-needed transformation. While some have questioned whether Mr. Behring has authority over the museum’s renewal program, he does not. His input is obviously highly important to us, but the final authority lies with the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian is the largest museum and research complex in the world, the guardian of America’s greatest cultural, scientific and historic treasures. The resources provided through private partnerships and the support of Congress enable the Institution to better serve the public, to spark the imagination and inspire the love of learning—for students of all ages. We tell the story of our nation’s democracy, and how each generation discovers—and rediscovers—what it means to be an American. Because we share the same goal, throughout our history, many patriotic citizens have offered to help in the effort. We welcome their support and thank them for their generosity.

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