Imagine having to patrol your facility with a wet vac every time it rained looking for pools of water. That’s exactly what staff members at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC do in an effort to protect the treasured collections housed in the museum. Strained expansion joints, an aged steam heating system, and other plumbing problems are causing increased and immediate concern. Other maintenance issues add to the fray.
In a recent edition of The New York Times, Lynette Clemetson reported,
Smithsonian officials concede that they are partly to blame for the advanced state of disrepair. Lawrence M. Small, the institution’s secretary, testified at a government hearing soon after he was installed in January 2000 that his staff had “hesitated to represent to Congress the full scale of the need.”
Congress responded that year by requiring the Smithsonian to submit to an evaluation by the National Academy of Public Administration, a review board chartered by Congress to analyze financial and management structures of government-financed organizations. Reviewers concluded, in a report published in 2001, that need had, in fact, exceeded budget requests. They also recommended a restructuring of the Smithsonian buildings’ management.
“There is always a battle for resources between programs and facilities,” said Clair F. Gill, deputy director and chief of staff of Facilities Engineering and Operations, an institutionwide maintenance department set up in response to the review’s recommendations. “It’s been a combination of people not wanting to express the true need and not feeling able to express it because of budget caps.”
The 2006 appropriation to the Smithsonian includes $99.5 million for repairs and restorations. Of that amount, $14 million is for renovations at the National Zoo, $12.8 million for repairs at the National Museum of Natural History and $5.8 million to relocate staff, collections and the computer center from the Arts and Industries Building.
Congress also requested the recently completed audit.
“We wanted an independent review to determine not only the efficiency at the Smithsonian but also the depth of its budget problems,” said Representative Bill Shuster, Republican of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management, which oversees the Smithsonian.
Slowly, some repair projects are nearing completion. The Patent Office Building, home to the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, has been closed since 2000 to repair a damaged roof and an outdated heating and cooling system. A $166 million renovation, financed over the past five fiscal years, is in its final stages. The building is to reopen next July.
Still, while Congress and Smithsonian officials debate who is responsible for what, some treasures have been lost for good. Among them is the collection of snapping lids and tools developed in the 1940’s by Earl Tupper as the earliest prototypes of the now ubiquitous Tupperware.
Attentive to leaks and humidity from an old steam heating system, curators in the Museum of American History, where the items were housed in a collection room, kept the treasured bits of Americana in a glass case covered with two layers of plastic sheeting. During the waiting period for financing and management restructuring after the 2001 government review, a rusty pipe ruptured, blasting the case with an acidic burst of water that penetrated the sheeting and glass.
“It was the most catastrophic leak we have ever had,” said Steven Turner, a physical sciences curator at the museum. “The samples deformed, just kind of curled up. A plastic handle looked like it just exploded. We go to great efforts to protect things. These things are part of the national heritage. But it just wasn’t enough. It was really traumatic.”
A portion of the heating system was finally replaced early this year.
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