Art & Design

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Exotic butterflies from around the world would be the stars of a new permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, here in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian is a federally-funded institution and so most of the new exhibit will be free.

But NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that people will have to pay to get close to the butterflies.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: In a large empty shell of a room with huge windows and high ceilings, engineers and contractors are working on a space that will be home to "Butterflies and Plants: Partners in Evolution." The free part of the display will focus on plants and animals that evolved together over time. Visitors can look through a glass window into a climate-controlled pavilion filled with hundreds of different live butterflies. But visitors who actually want to go inside will have to pay $5. Sally Love helped developed the pavilion.

Ms. SALLY LOVE (Co-creator, Butterfly Habitat Garden, Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History): There will be a pathway through. We'll have tropical plants everywhere, feeding stations, a tropaeum(ph) so you can see metamorphosis as it's going on.

BLAIR: Over the years, the Smithsonian have occasionally charged nominal admission fees for special shows. But this will be the first time it's charging a fee for a component of a permanent exhibition.

Ms. LOVE: We have to staff at seven days a week. We have the costs in shipping the butterflies from Latin America, from Africa, from Asia. We need to replenish them almost every week. The operational costs are so high. We couldn't do the exhibit any other way.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): They would have a hard time convincing this senator of that argument considering all the waste that I've seen there.

BLAIR: Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which allocates funds to the Smithsonian.

Sen. GRASSLEY: I compliment the Smithsonian for having such displays, in particular butterflies, and it's something they, particularly kids, are going to love, more than adults.

BLAIR: But Grassley hates the fee, which was approved last January by the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. Grassley has been a vocal critic of the way the Smithsonian spends money. He was particularly outspoken about Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small, who recently resigned amid controversy over his more than $400,000 salary and his expenditures.

Sen. GRASSLEY: There's $700 million of taxpayers' money going in there. There's a lot of tax-exempt money donated to it. It seems to me that it's pretty piggish to be charging $5, particularly to an exhibit that kids are going to want to see.

BLAIR: But Grassley's colleague, Senator Dianne Feinstein from California, told The Washington Post she's happy to hear the Smithsonian has found a creative way to make the butterfly show available for visitors to enjoy. For years, Smithsonian officials have argued that the federal funds they get are barely enough to run 19 museums and nine research centers, including the National Zoo.

The Smithsonian figures the money it makes from the butterfly pavilion fees will cover the exhibition's $900,000 annual operating budget. But will the fee deter visitors? Large families with children might resent it, but Jan Downing(ph) from Phoenix, Arizona thinks the Smithsonian should charge admission whenever it needs to. She and her friend are visiting the monuments and museums in Washington this week.

Ms. JAN DOWNING (Tourist from Phoenix, Arizona): I would certainly think there is no reason why we could not pay a small fee for the entrance to the Smithsonian and I'm thinking how many people go to Disneyland and Disneyworld and pay very high prices to get in. Why can't we not do the same for our own wonderful cultural, historical exhibit?

BLAIR: "Butterflies and Plants: Partners in Evolution" opens in November. Incidentally, the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum will waive the admission fee to the butterfly pavilion one day a week.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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