REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Rebecca Roberts.
The Smithsonian Institution is a sprawling complex of 19 museums and nine research centers, mostly here in Washington. Now, the vast institution is looking for a new leader.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that the new secretary will not just have to manage the diverse organization, but will also have to focus on funding it and that means dealing with Congress, which provides 70 percent of the Smithsonian's budget, avoiding controversy, and seeking outside money as well.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: In 1829, English scientist James Smithson left a gift of about a half a million dollars to the United States for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Seventeen years later, Congress settled on how to spend the money. They passed legislation founding the Smithsonian Institution, which would include a library, scientific laboratories, and a museum. And from the beginning there was conflict.
Robert Sullivan, a former associate director at the Natural History Museum, sits on a bench near a statue of Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian's first secretary. He says Henry, a physicist, never believed Congress would give them enough money to be all of those things.
Mr. ROBERT SULLIVAN (Former Associate Director, Natural History Museum): He was a pure researcher. He was worried very much about American science and American research, keeping up with the Europeans. So he saw the Smithsonian as a great research institute, not a major public museum, and not a major public museum.
BLAIR: Under Joseph Henry, Smithsonian-funded science became a major force in American life. During the Civil War, Union soldiers relied on Smithsonian balloons for aerial reconnaissance. Smithsonian studies of weather around the country ultimately lead to the U.S. Weather Service. Pamela Henson is the Smithsonian's institutional historian.
Ms. PAMELA HENSON (Smithsonian Institutional Historian): And he was fascinated by what caused storms, and he developed something called the meteorological project, which began to track weather across the United States having weather reports telegraphed in on a daily basis. He would send out equipment and they will be telegraphed in and we would compile the data at the Smithsonian. And we, for example, established the pattern we know that most of the storms travel from west to east with the jet stream.
BLAIR: More than a century later, scientists at the Smithsonian are still breaking new ground.
Ms. SUSAN MURRAY (Veterinarian, Smithsonian's National Zoo): Mei-Xiang.
BLAIR: On a recent morning at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the giant panda Mei-Xiang is getting one of her weekly ultrasounds.
Ms. MURRAY: (Unintelligible). Good for you. It's perfect.
BLAIR: She's not pregnant now, but last year she gave birth to a cub through artificial insemination. The Zoo is hoping for another one. Head veterinarian Suzan Murray says that's the reason for the weekly ultrasound.
Ms. MURRAY: For one to determine in (unintelligible) what's normal, so when we - if she is pregnant and we do see something developing we'll be able to recognize that.
(Unintelligible). Here you go sweetie.
BLAIR: The National Zoo's breeding and conservation program is one of the Smithsonian's biggest success stories. It's also expensive and depends heavily on corporate donor Fujifilm, which has already contributed almost $8 million to the project.
The pandas are a special case. Most of the Smithsonian's projects don't benefit from such a generous corporate sponsor. Securing funding has always been a kind of dance between Congress and the Smithsonian, particularly when the work might be considered controversial.
In the late 1880s, a Smithsonian ethnologist compared Native American religious beliefs to Christianity. The secretary at the time, Samuel Pierpoint Langley, feared that this radical idea would jeopardize their federal funding. Langley pressured one of his directors to officially discredit this part of the ethnologist's research. Pamela Henson says his decision backfired.
Ms. HENSON: The fact that Langley is limiting Smithsonian research results becomes a controversy. He is criticized for trying to stifle research at the Smithsonian. So the man who tries to avoid controversy becomes the controversy in and of itself.
BLAIR: Political considerations and public sensibilities can be a minefield for the Smithsonian.
Ms. HENSON: We are what I sometimes call the temple of national identity. What we put on center stage in Washington, D.C. says a lot about what the United States is, what our history is, what our culture is, what we believe in terms of science. What we say is very important to everyone in this country.
BLAIR: More recently, the Smithsonian came under fire for making changes to an exhibit of photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2003, Senator Barbara Boxer happened to hold up one of the photos from the exhibit during a heated debate over oil drilling in the Arctic.
Shortly thereafter, the staff at the Museum of Natural History moved the exhibit to a remote, downstairs gallery. At a Senate hearing, Secretary Lawrence Small tried to explain why.
Mr. LAWRENCE SMALL (Secretary, Smithsonian Institution): They did it because they felt that the exhibit would look better and it would also avoid the issue of the Smithsonian engaging in a debate which is obviously political. It was never the Smithsonian's intention to have this exhibit be an analysis of the oil-drilling issue in Alaska.
BLAIR: In this case, the Smithsonian's action may have paid off. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who at the time chaired the committee that funds the Smithsonian, praised the decision to move the show. He said the Smithsonian wouldn't get money if it engaged in political advocacy.
But four years later, angry lawmakers were demanding Lawrence Small's ouster. His extravagant lifestyle, his half-a-million-dollar salary and unauthorized spending became the real threats to Smithsonian funding. Congress froze a portion of its appropriations until they put their house in order.
The search is on for Small's successor. Like every other secretary, he or she will have to charm, lobby, and justify their decisions to Congress. That was a challenge for even one of the most respected and charismatic of the Smithsonian heads. S. Dillon Ripley, who was secretary from 1964 to 1984, once described looking out the window from his office on the Mall towards the halls of Congress.
(Soundbite of archived speech)
Mr. SIDNEY DILLON RIPLEY (Secretary, Smithsonian Institution): These great buildings were like a pride of surfeited lions, lying there in their own surfeit, fed to the teeth with money, none of which was coming to the Smithsonian.
BLAIR: The search for the Smithsonian's next secretary is expected to take about a year.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.