Future of a Free Smithsonian

Admission fees won't happen, but the idea has merit

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Monday, Nov 15, 2010  |  Updated 10:43 AM EDT
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Future of a Free Smithsonian

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Great Smithson’s ghost! I really opened a can of worms -- the kind you might find in the National Museum of Natural History gift shop -- with my Friday DMV Daily column, where I suggested that the idea of charging for Smithsonian entrance is maybe possibly not entirely an awful idea.

The chairmen of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform presented a deficit reduction outline last week that suggested a $7.50 admission fee for the Smithsonian, which is 70 percent federally funded. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson said this would allow a $225 million annual reduction to the taxpayer contribution.

Lest I bury the lead, let’s be clear: This is not going to happen. Past suggestions of Smithsonian admission fees as low as a single dollar have been shot down, and as Michael E. Grass points out in Washington City Paper, several of the museums are forbidden by law from charging. Moreover, the Bowles/Simpson report as a whole is basically a dead letter. The twosome managed to create true bipartisanship -- both Democrats and Republicans rejected their effort, and even other members of their commission said it was unworkable.

I should also be clear in stating that I really don’t want to have to pay for the Smithsonian. In fact, just hours after publishing that item on Friday morning, I took my sons to the National Gallery of Art, which isn’t actually part of the Smithsonian but might as well be. We are a homeschooling family, and the region’s free and nearly-free resources are essential to our daily lives. We’re probably at a Smithsonian museum at least once a week.

I have long told friends and family that the Smithsonian is the best reason to homeschool in D.C. Our homeschooling friends in New York have the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, and more, but these have admission fees or strong suggestions of the same. While the cost may not be prohibitive, a family in Manhattan is less likely to risk popping into an exhibit just to check it out than we are. Here, I can take my two 6-year-olds to see an exhibition at the Hirshhorn knowing that if it bores them, we haven’t lost any money on the effort.

In knowing that the Smithsonian admission fee will never be adopted, I’m not really risking much by taking what Aaron Morrissey of DCist called “an incredibly unpopular stance.” But even so, and despite my own misgivings, the suggestion bears consideration.
As of this 9 this morning, the total federal debt is $13,738,853,984,273.90. Next year’s federal deficit is expected to approach $1.5 trillion. The only concrete proposal from Capitol Hill has been yet another increase in the utterly meaningless federal debt limit. Cuts have to be made somewhere, and part of the queasiness the Bowles/Simpson suggestion brought about was due to their willingness to put everything -- even Social Security and the Pentagon -- on the block.

Reducing the federal allocation for the Smithsonian by $225 million would cut President Obama’s next budget by about 0.05 percent, which led D.C. Like a Local blogger Tim Krepp to call the idea “fiscal theater.” (Krepp also does a very good job of dissecting why the Bowles/Simpson math on Smithsonian visitors is way off and “ridiculously high.” The Smithsonian itself released a statement to this effect on Friday.)

Still, a cut is a cut. If you have $15,000 in credit card debt, it’s not a good idea to go to Starbucks every morning even if that does only cost three dollars. Those daily visits add up -- as do all the small items in the federal budget. National parks charge -- why not national museums?

There’s also a regional issue here. Some local bloggers say it would be unfair to charge area residents to visit these museums in their own city, and suggest free entrance for D.C. residents. This is exactly wrong. As another blogger writes, “as much as I love being able to duck into” these museums “and not have to worry about paying and getting my money’s worth, there’s no reason some guy in Colorado Springs should be picking up the tab for me.” The free policy “benefits D.C. area residents (and disproportionally the richer, better educated ones).”

One DCist commenter offers another idea: “Sell the Hope Diamond. I mean, come on, at the end of the day it is just a rock.”

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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