Politics & Policy

No Small Loss

Smithsonian considerations.

When people enter public service they must abide by basic rules of frugality. So I will not defend the excesses of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, who was felled last week after it was revealed that he’d been reimbursed for various questionable expenses including home-chandelier cleanings and the purchase of a lap-pool heater.

#ad#Even if, relative to his 35-year career in banking, Small was under the illusion that he working within appropriate means (just one chandelier cleaning a year!), his notion of sacrifice was too misaligned with the conduct expected of civil servants — and so he’s gone.

Among those inside Washington’s Beltway reveling in Small’s departure are the Smithsonian’s brigades of scholars who, because Small was the first secretary who didn’t share their scholarly pedigree, never gained their trust. Ironically the group which stands to lose the most from the elite secretary’s exit is the Smithsonian’s popular base — its vast and adoring public.

Small is the most effective advocate the Smithsonian has ever had. He raised more funds for the institution during his seven-year tenure than did all previous secretaries over the course of 154 years. Part of what fuelled Small’s success was his deep and unembarrassed appreciation for the public mission of the Smithsonian, a perspective that rankled many of the institution’s academics.

The Smithsonian is a research and education institution that, like a university, employs a staff that favors the former over the latter. Just as most professors spurn teaching, many Smithsonian scholars consider public projects an imposition.

When such projects are unavoidable, curators expect to enjoy the kind of creative freedom more appropriate to artists than to educators producing an exhibition for one of the largest museum-going audiences in the world. This disjuncture has repeatedly pitted the Smithsonian against its public and riddled the institution’s history with controversy. Time and again curators have used exhibitions on straightforward subjects — the art of the West, the end of World War II — to promote unevidenced views derived from fashionable scholarship.

Small clashed with these curators because their perspective was so remote from his own. He seemed to find it unfathomable that there were people who worked at the Smithsonian who weren’t wowed by its wonders and driven to share them with others.

I had lunch once with Small in his office in the Smithsonian’s castle (yes, I noticed the excessive décor). The meal was preceded by a tour of objects loaned from the institution’s storerooms. Small reveled in the powerful presence of the top-hat President Lincoln wore the evening he was assassinated and in the pure joy emanating from an original Kermit the Frog.

Small’s goal was to give the public the museums it wanted. He restored the Star-Spangled Banner, renovated long-neglected galleries, and brought pandas back to the National Zoo.

This public-oriented leadership stood in stunning contrast to Small’s predecessor, I. Michael Heyman, a former chancellor at the University of California-Berkeley. The climax of Heyman’s tenure was a public clash over the National Air and Space Museum’s plans for a politically correct exhibition surrounding the first public display of the Enola Gay. The Smithsonian admitted that curators’ plans depicted the Japanese as victims and Americans as vengeful invaders. After two years of bitter and damaging debate that pitted the Smithsonian against an outraged, veteran-led public, Heyman finally cancelled the exhibition rather than requiring curators to present an accurate and balanced history.

By contrast, Small’s controversies revolved around his efforts to better serve the Smithsonian’s public. Not long after becoming Secretary Small found himself embroiled in an internal fight over a $38 million pledge to create a “Hall of Achievers” in the National Museum of American History. This permanent exhibition would have profiled American winners of the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, along with Olympians, and recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But many of today’s revisionist-minded curators consider “achievement” a naïve and disputed notion, and they wrote Small an open letter of protest. The exhibition, which planned to demonstrate “the power of the individual to shape American life and impact the course of history,” was scuttled. One wonders how many Americans, particularly schoolchildren, might have benefited from those success stories.

Spokesmen for the museum establishment, which always derided Small for his private-sector roots, already are calling on the Smithsonian’s regents only to consider academics for the top post.

Unfortunately early signs suggest the regents are following this advice. They selected as acting secretary a biologist who heads the National Museum of Natural History, passing over Small’s able deputy Sheila Burke, a Hill veteran and perhaps the only person capable of restoring good relations with Congress. And the already lengthy list of potential Small successors consists almost solely of scholars. Replacing Small with an academic would demote the public interest and fuel the rebirth of a scholar-centric Smithsonian.

The Regents must remember that the Smithsonian museums are America’s museums. They should be led by someone who not only embraces their public purpose, but who is as unabashedly in love with their wonders as was Secretary Small. The alternative is missteps that could fill a museum.

— Lynne Munson, an author and cultural critic, served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001-2005.

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