On April 9, 2008, the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies held a hearing to consider the fiscal year (FY) 2009 budget for the Smithsonian Institution. The Bush administration’s proposed budget would increase total funding for the Smithsonian by nearly $34 million from the FY ’08 budget to a total of $716.4 million. However, the budget includes an $11 million reduction in funding for public programs, exhibitions and research.
Acting Secretary Christian Samper represented the Smithsonian at the hearing. It was recently announced that Dr. G. Wayne Clough, currently President of Georgia Tech, would take over as Secretary on July 1, 2008. Samper was known to have been the other finalist for the position and he will return to his prior post as Director of the National Museum of Natural History when Clough takes over.
One of the highlights of the hearing was an announcement by Dr. Samper that the National Museum of American History (NMAH) would reopen this coming November after being closed since September 2006 for major renovations. The museum originally had been scheduled to reopen this summer.
Subcommittee Chairman Norman Y. Dicks (D-WA) congratulated Dr. Samper on his leadership during the difficult transitional period following the resignation of controversial former-Secretary Lawrence Small. Dicks said that Samper had restored both employee morale and public confidence, and had positioned the Smithsonian for a better future.
Dicks noted that the 5% increase for the Smithsonian was the largest amount proposed by the Bush administration for any agency under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction. However, he felt the budget included some bad tradeoffs, especially increasing funding for facilities repairs at the expense of public education and programs.
Dr. Samper said that the $11.2 million reduction would be acutely felt and that cuts would have to be made in traveling exhibitions, public programs and education. He said, “There is no point in having beautiful facilities if they are going to be hollow inside.” Chairman Dicks asked if the deficit could be made up by an increase in public donations as called for under the Bush proposal, but Samper said it would be difficult to raise that amount of money in the short term.
Ranking Member Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) asked how much progress had been made in facilities repairs and how they were prioritized. Dr. Samper said that they usually focus on the museums with the largest attendance and then have to perform triage in determining whatever other repairs are made. He estimated that the Smithsonian would need $1.5 billion over the next ten years to meet its backlog of repairs. But he added that unfortunately the Smithsonian had been investing in facilities at the expense of programs. He said the Smithsonian needed to invest in not just buildings, but also in the minds inside the buildings.
When questioned about the controversial Smithsonian Business Ventures (SBV) operation, Samper said that he had begun to implement some of the recommendations in a report issued this past January. The Task Force on Smithsonian Business Ventures called for retaining the business operation as a centralized, distinct organization within the Smithsonian, but more closely aligning its functions with the mission of the Institution. Samper said SBV is being restructured along these lines and will be renamed “Smithsonian Enterprises.”
In response to a question about attendance, Samper said that it was “holding strong” at about 24 million annual visitors to all of its facilities. He said there had been a 7% increase so far this year and he expected that the National Museum of American History would host 3 million visitors a year once it is reopened.