The Smithsonian is an expensive institution to run, especially since its museums are free. Every couple years, an idea is floated to start charging as a way to cover more of its expenses and reduce the burden on taxpayers for keeping the world's largest museum complex up and running.
But there's one big sticking point: For some Smithsonian museums, it is unlawful to charge for admission.
As Jacqueline Trescott reported in The Washington Post back in 2006, Sheila Burke, then the Smithsonian's No. 2 officer, "noted that four museums are legally forbidden from charging. The laws that created the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden prohibit admission fees. In addition, Charles Lang Freer's will, which provided for the creation of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, stated there could never be a charge."
So everyone who is freaking out about this deficit-reduction proposal should just cool their jets. It's not like the Smithsonian can put up signs over the weekend and start charging. Many of the deficit-reduction recommendations would require legislation to make happen.
And if past reactions to museum admission proposals tell us anything about potential fights down the road, charging for the Smithsonian is just as much a third-rail as toying with Social Security or Medicare.
A Point of Order: Charging for Some Smithsonian Museums Is Illegal was originally published by Washington City Paper on Nov 12, 2010.