Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, August 6, 2002 --
Weeks before the grand opening of the International Spy Museum, I watched with disdain as construction crews put the finishing touches on the glitzy new infotainment complex. Nearby historic blocks had long been marred by such tacky tourist ventures as the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, and the ESPN Zone. These popular but culturally empty McMerican attractions have distracted busloads of package tourists from Washington's more genuine sites and museums. In July, the Malrite Corporation, developer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, opened the for-profit Spy Museum, which features two cafes, a large store, and a relatively small exhibit space complete with a vibrating floor, artifacts from James Bond Movies, and Micky Mouse-style costumed "agents" that patrol the building.1
A committed urban snob, I turned my nose up at the Spy Museum on a recent weekend, and headed down to the museums of the 150-year-old Smithsonian Institution. Expecting the enriching and engaging exhibits for which the non-profit institution is known, I was shocked by what I found. Nestled in the back of the Natural History Museum was the Dinotopia exhibit, based on a group of children's books and a TV miniseries about a lost island where dinosaurs live happily with a human civilization. The exhibit featured video clips from the making of the miniseries, models of the fictional island, and its anthropomorphized dinosaur characters. Hanging prominently over the exhibit were the airdates of the Hallmark Entertainment miniseries, along with the words, "Dinotopia is made possible through the generous support of Hallmark Entertainment."
Not only was the nation's premiere museum complex hosting a paid infomercial for the $85 million2 ABC television show, but it actually was trying to pass it off as a museum exhibit. Such outrageous deals have been the new way of business for the Smithsonian since its takeover by Lawrence M. Small over two years ago. A former executive of Fannie Mae who spent over two decades with Citibank, Small is the first non-academic to lead the museum in its history.3
His business partnerships have brought the museums needed funds, but have earned him the fierce criticism of lefty organizations opposed to commercialization. One of his most vocal opponents, Commercial Alert, gathered a group of 170 "scholars and activists" to urge the Smithsonian's Board of Regents to fire Small for abuses ranging from allowing a McDonald's in the Air and Space Museum to putting the General Motors name on the Hall of Transportation.4
Such anti-commercial attacks are distracting, and completely miss the point. Provided that there is proper separation of sponsorship and scholarship, there is absolutely nothing wrong with naming museums and exhibits after sponsors, comnercial or otherwise. As Small's defenders point out, the Smithsonian Institution itself is named after its first donor, James Smithson, and the Orkin Insext Zoo has been one of the best exhibits in the National History Museum for nearly 10 years.5
The problem with Small's leadership has not been commercialism, but the shameful compromise of scholarship that has unnecessarily come with it. Because money can be influential, sponsored scholars always must be vigilant that their work is not compromised. Small is oblivious to this concern. "I don't think raising money represents any conflict with the maintenance of cultural and scientific integrity," he said last year in an interview with Business Week.6
The first major result of this lax attitude came last year. Small agreed to give effective control over major exhibits to donors in the case of a $80 million contribution from developer Kenneth Behring and a $38 million pledge from financial magnate Catherine Reynolds for the National History Museum.7,8 The resulting scandal led the Organization of American Historians to appeal to the Smithsonian Board of Regents to overrule Small's decision.9 The institution has since renegotiated its contracts with the donors.
After such a high-profile rebuke, you would think that Small would be more cautious. But the current Hallmark Dinotopia exhibit perfectly highlights the degree to which Small has been willing to sell the Museum's scholarship. The exhibit's signs brag that "with consultation of Smithsonian experts, [the author] incorporated suggestions of scientific accuracy into his stories."0 Oh really? Apparently this accuracy does not extend to teaching children the fundamental fact that Dinosaurs did not inhabit the earth at the same time as humans.
Ironically, the for-profit mission of the Spy Museum across town has kept it from having to stoop to the level of the Smithsonian. Its unabashedly commercial outlook allows it to finance itself without its scholars selling themselves to endorse kids' dinosaur videos. The lesson to be learned is that while business deals may be negotiated, scholarship must not. As long as the Smithsonian is led by a man willing to sell the institution's reputation, American culture will suffer.