Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra promised Monday to "fight tooth and nail" against any effort to begin charging admission for the Smithsonian Institution museums, speaking at the first open meeting of its governing board in 162 years.
A questioner suggested the Smithsonian couldn't afford to continue offering free access to its museums on the National Mall during tough economic times. The response from an audience of about 400 gathered at the National Museum of Natural History was a round of "boos."
"I don't think we want to do that to Americans because what we possess is not only fabulous but hallowed," said Becerra of California. "Anyone who wants to charge, you have to walk through me."
No one in the audience was bold enough to challenge Becerra.
Still, one new member of the Smithsonian board said Americans have become "too inward thinking" on investing in science and culture.
John McCarter Jr., the president and chief executive of Chicago's Field Museum who serves on the Smithsonian Board of Regents, said China, South Africa and many Persian Gulf nations are "investing big time" in science, culture and history.
"Far be it from me to speak against free admission, so I won't do that," McCarter said. "Free admission is great," as long as it doesn't come at the cost of deferred maintenance, hiring freezes and neglected research budgets.
"That is a dead end," he said. "We can't provide (free admission) by under-investing in these institutions."
Smithsonian officials have struggled with how to tackle a $2.5 billion backlog on maintenance for its 19 museums, the National Zoo and numerous research centers. The museum complex relies on Congress to fund about 70 percent of its $1 billion annual budget, but lawmakers have pressed the Smithsonian to become more self-reliant.
The wide-ranging discussion was the board's first public meeting in its history. The two-hour session was devoted mostly to questions and answers, though board chairman Roger Sant said the format could change in future public meetings.
Chief Justice John Roberts serves as chancellor of the regents and was scheduled to lead the meeting, but he canceled due to a last-minute commitment.
The meeting was part of a series of governance reforms undertaken after former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small drew scrutiny for his spending and compensation.
Sant gave a summary of the Smithsonian's finances. Declines in the stock market, he said, have cost the Smithsonian's endowment about $200 million since its peak of more than $1 billion in late 2007. Since June, the endowment has declined about 14 percent.
No major changes were planned for the Smithsonian's endowment, but Sant said they were becoming more conservative with investments.
Secretary Wayne Clough said the Smithsonian raised $135.6 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. On Monday the board approved a $6 million gift from Airbus and will rename an IMAX theater for the European aircraft maker at its National Air and Space Museum annex in Dulles, Va.
Clough said visitation to Smithsonian museums was down about 2 percent for 2008. The numbers are expected to climb in 2009, he said, because of the inauguration and two Hollywood films focused on the Smithsonian, including "Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian."
Clough also offered the Smithsonian's expertise to President-elect Barack Obama's administration on issues from climate change to rebuilding international relations. "Obviously, he has a different slant on foreign relations," Clough said. The Smithsonian was criticized previously for toning down an exhibit on climate change to avoid conflict with any politicians.
The Smithsonian could play a role in Obama's inauguration, Clough said, noting that President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held in the building that now houses the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum.