GAO Criticizes Smithsonian Maintenance and Security Practices

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report critical of the Smithsonian Institution’s maintenance and security practices. The GAO specifically cited the Smithsonian Board of Regents for not responding to recommendations in a 2005 GAO report that urging a more aggressive approach to raising funds from the private sector and less reliance on scarce federal dollars.

The Smithsonian’s cost estimate for facilities projects has increased to $2.5 billion from $2.3 billion in April 2005.

The report detailed the impact that the lack of adequate maintenance funds has had on the Institution’s collections. The GAO gave startling examples of “near misses”—events related to inadequate facilities that could have been catastrophic to collections had they occurred at different times. According to Sackler Gallery officials, in October 2006, a major leak unexpectedly occurred in a holding area used by the museum to store exhibits on loan three weeks before $500 million worth of art arrived to be held there. If the leak had occurred while the art was being stored in this space, the art could have been destroyed.

The GAO also found because of funding shortfalls, the Smithsonian has an inadequate number of security guards. As a result cases of vandalism and theft have occurred at Smithsonian facitilities..

This lack of adequate funding for maintenance and security is ironic given the well-publicized lavish salary and expenses incurred by former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, who was forced to resign earlier this year. The fallout from the Small scandal has resulted in hostility towards the Smithsonian Regents from Congress and a reticence to provide additional funding from the federal government until the Institution gets its house in order.