Smithsonian’s chief says more museums must wait, maintenance is top priority

Smithsonian’s chief says more museums must wait, maintenance is top priority
The Smithsonian Institution gets 62% of its total budget from Congress and all of its maintenance budget from Congress. (Source: Capitol News Service)

By AYANA ARCHIE

Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - As the public demand for new museums increases, the Smithsonian Institution's chief says his top priority is getting on top of a huge maintenance backlog at the world's largest museum and research complex before he considers expanding.

Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie Bunch III last month told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's economic development and public buildings subcommittee, which oversees the museum, that the repair backlog recently surpassed $1 billion.

“A billion dollar backlog may sound insurmountable, but it’s not,” he said. “Since becoming secretary, I’ve had a chance to look at this with fresh eyes...I want us to analyze our maintenance projects building by building.”

He added that part of the reason the backlog has been steadily increasing is that repairs aren’t “sexy” to donors, many of whom would rather put their money to more visible changes.

House Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Jose Serrano, both of New York, introduced legislation earlier this year to add a women’s history museum and a Latino history museum, respectively, to the Smithsonian complex. The women's history museum bill has cleared committee action and is awaiting a vote by the full House. The Latino bill is not as far along, still awaiting committee action.

Bunch said he is open to the addition of new museums, but that he must fully identify the challenges and the availability of resources for them, such as space on the National Mall, a better understanding of costs and a period of several years of study.

Bunch founded the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He was elected as head of the Smithsonian Institution in May, becoming the first African American director and the first museum director to be promoted to secretary in 74 years.

He said that from his experience, the completion of a new museum will be at least a decade-long process.

“The prospect for new museums is really the great unknown for us,” he said. “My hope is even if there isn’t a museum, we will continue to make sure those stories are told.”

He added that he is mostly focused on completing current projects.

The National Air and Space Museum is undergoing a $650 million renovation that will be completed in 2025. The Smithsonian also intends to purchase a new headquarters building in Washington with 632,000 square feet, renovate The Castle and neighboring Arts and Industries Buildings, and is constructing a new sculpture garden for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The Smithsonian also needs more storage, Bunch said.

The organization’s Museum Support Center is in Suitland, Maryland, in the district of Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Largo. The center houses five storage pods, each the size of a football field.

Brown pointed out that despite the need for more storage space, Smithsonian has requested $6.5 million for MSC for fiscal year 2020, out of a total $210 million for facilities.

Bunch said the institution is working on a "master plan" to identify needed resources for the location.

"The Suitland campus is crucial," Bunch said. "Being able to use that campus to its fullest extent will help the Smithsonian continue to be the institution that preserves America's culture."

The Smithsonian Institution gets 62% of its total budget from Congress and all of its maintenance budget from Congress.

Cathy Helm, the Smithsonian's inspector general, told the House Administration Committee in September that the maintenance backlog is likely to grow because the institution is not spending enough to keep up.

The Smithsonian's fiscal 2020 budget request includes $84.5 million for maintenance, which is about one percent of the current replacement costs of facilities. By contrast, she pointed out that the National Research Council has recommended that government agencies annually spend between 2 and 4 percent of current replacement costs for maintenance. That would translate to between $169 million and $338 million for the Smithsonian.

"Deferring maintenance can reduce the overall life of facilities and may lead to higher costs in the long term," Helm told lawmakers. "Eventually, deferred maintenance requires a major capital investment."

The Smithsonian has more than 600 facilities across the globe and saw more than 28 million visitors in 2018, according to its website. The institution also has more than 155 million objects in its collections and conducts research in a broad array of fields, from astronomy to zoology.

Members of the transportation committee in September praised Bunch’s work and called for a stronger relationship between the Congress and the Smithsonian.

“Look to us and have us be a partner with you, and not just focus everything on appropriations, but remember that we are here and this committee wants to be engaged and we want it to be a positive, collaborative relationship,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Dina Titus, D-Nevada.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.