The Washington Post reports today that the Smithsonian Institution, which houses many of our nation’s most precious artifacts, is in severe need of repair.
A leak at the National Air and Space Museum caused rust on the wing of the first plane to hit Mach 2. Plaster walls are weeping in the Renwick Gallery. Some buildings and exhibits on the Mall and at the National Zoo have closed because of disrepair, and more leaks threaten the Smithsonian's historic collections and irreplaceable objects, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
The cost to fix all of these problems is estimated to be about $2.3 billion over nine years. But we are unlikely to spend that amount of money which is currently 13 times greater than the Smithsonian’s facility budget.
The Smithsonian's repairs-and-maintenance budget for fiscal year 2004 is $184.4 million of its $904 million operating budget for 18 public museums and galleries, 10 science centers, the zoo and other facilities. There are 660 buildings altogether that display, study and safeguard 143.7 million precious objects and specimens and 166.3 million archived documents and photographs.
The GAO report goes on to detail how "structural deterioration" and "chronic leaks" have closed some buildings, restricted access to others and damaged some collections.
Among the casualties are the landmark 1881 Arts and Industries Building on the Mall and the zoo's sloth bear building and birds-of-prey flight cage, which have been shut down pending repairs. The Old Patent Office Building at Seventh and F streets NW, home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, has been closed since 2000 for revitalization for reroofing, but is scheduled to reopen in July 2006.
Some precious objects have also been damaged. At Air and Space, the pioneering Lilienthal Hang Glider that influenced the Wright Brothers' flight designs has been blemished by a leak, and the Douglas Skyrocket D558, the first airplane to break Mach 2, has some visible rust. As stopgaps, Smithsonian conservators have had to drape plastic sheeting over valuable artifacts.
This is inexusable that Smithonian curators have been reduced to covering our national artifacts with plastic sheeting to keep them from being damaged by leaky roofs and faulty plumbing. So why isn’t the Bush administration doing something about this? Are we really that poor and cash-strapped?
Not when it comes to nation building in Iraq! This year alone the Bush administration is spending $21 billion on reconstruction projects in Iraq of which $3.3 billion has been allocated just for security.
The head of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq said Saturday that as much as 16 percent of the $21 billion reconstruction budget would be spent on providing security for its projects and workers -- roughly double the original estimate...
His office also disclosed that 295 civilian contractors had been killed in Iraq as of April 30...
So remember that the Smithsonian repairs would cost 2.3 billion over nine years - and that is more than we are willing to pay - but we are spending more than $1 billion than that this year alone just on security for Iraqi reconstruction projects.
As one side note, I should also point out that the GAO study concluded that the disrepair at the Smithsonian facilities is not due to neglect or mismanagement, but is instead due to the fact that they have been ”strapped by staffing reductions and a tight budget.”