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A first lady's inauguration gown, a Model T Ford. Over the years, many people have donated their precious artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But it seems not enough people think of giving the Smithsonian what it really needs - money for repairs. Maintenance on the museum complex is a big problem with some two and a half billion dollars behind on upkeep. And those Smithsonian buildings belong to the federal government.
As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, it's not clear where that money is going to come from.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Across from a working carousel, the Arts and Industries Building is one of the most eye-catching on the National Mall. Made of bright red brick and sandstone with geometric patterns, the Victorian building is the Smithsonian's second oldest. But today, its doors are closed.
Ms. SHANNA LOCK(ph): We're just disappointed that we can't go inside.
BLAIR: Shanna Lock and her family were recently visiting D.C. from Carlsbad, California.
Ms. LOCK: I would like to think that this is, you know, a big central part of D.C. that you would like to keep these things open and up and going so that everyone can enjoy them and learn about the history of our country.
Mr. MARK GOLDSTEIN (Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office): The Arts and Industries Building is completely empty and the reason is because the roof is slowly but surely caving in.
BLAIR: Mark Goldstein supervised two major studies of Smithsonian facilities by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, one in 2005 and a follow-up that was completed a couple of months ago. Both times they found leaky roofs, temperature control problems, a number of infrastructure issues that threatens Smithsonian collections. And like any homeowner knows, the estimates for repairs just keep getting higher.
At a Senate hearing this summer, Senator Dianne Feinstein told Smithsonian officials not to rely on Congress to foot the bill.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I see no way that that two-and-a-half-billion-dollar shortfall is ever going to be picked up by the public sector. The pressure on the dollars is just too great.
BLAIR: The Smithsonian is between a rock and a hard place. Since its founding more than 150 years ago, it has become a massive complex, nine research centers, the National Zoo and 19 different museums. Most everyone agrees that the annual budget it gets from the federal government has not kept pace with its growth.
The Smithsonian's acting secretary, Cristian Samper, is one of many who believe the care of the institution's buildings is a federal responsibility.
Mr. CRISTIAN SAMPER (Acting Secretary, The Smithsonian Institution): These are federal buildings. They house the national collections. They host the American people. Historically, it's been seen as their responsibility.
BLAIR: Samper points out that the Smithsonian does raise money for content, new exhibitions and even the construction of new buildings. But Mark Goldstein of the GAO says the Smithsonian also needs to find other ways to pay for infrastructure.
Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Either put in specific kinds of user fees like the National Park Service. When you go to a national park today, you do pay other kinds of fees. They could have a national campaign, the way funds were raised for the revitalization of the Statue of Liberty in Ellis Island. There's a variety of options out there that could be useful to the Smithsonian.
BLAIR: At a meeting last week, the Smithsonian's Board of Regents voted on the general principle of a national campaign. But for now they're focused on more pressing challenges. Last March, the Smithsonian's former secretary resigned in a wave of controversy over his management and spending. And the Smithsonian's Board of Regents were sharply criticized for lack of oversight.
At a press briefing, the regents said they're focused on making governance reforms and searching for a new secretary. But on the top of the finding other revenue streams, Regent Roger Sant says one thing they will not do is charge admission.
Mr. ROGER SANT (Chairman, Smithsonian Board of Regents): This is set up as something that would be free to the American public and I haven't detected any sentiments on the part of our fellow regents or anyone else for that matter that we ought to reopen now.
BLAIR: And the public has responded to that access. This year, the Smithsonian had more than 24 million visitors, a 7 percent increase from last year. But popularity does not raise money to pay for the basics.
Virginia Clark is in charge of fundraising for the Smithsonian.
Ms. VIRGINIA CLARK (Director of External Affairs, The Smithsonian Institution): Our donors have been very focused on giving support for our exhibitions, for our new buildings, for our programs, and not that interested in giving money to fix the plumbing, to change a roof, or rip up a floor and put a new one down.
BLAIR: Clark says they are looking at fundraising models where a percentage of every gift goes to maintenance. They have a precedent. In 1987, Enid Haupt gave the Smithsonian $1.5 million to create an elaborate garden. She also gave them an equally generous endowment for its upkeep. As a gardener herself, she understood what it takes to keep a garden growing.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.
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