The New Smithsonian – Home To Beautiful Artifacts, Galleries And…Asbestos?

The Smithsonian suffers from numerous facilities-related problems that have forced some building and exhibit closures and that have even caused damage to some of the collections.

Imagine driving your family across the country, embarking on an educational quest to experience one of the world’s greatest collections of historical artifacts only to discover that instead of being exposed to breathtaking art, your family is exposed to asbestos. And structural deterioration and water leaks from deteriorated pipes that keep numerous exhibits from even being displayed and some of the museums from even being open.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Smithsonian – the world’s largest museum complex and research organization, with 18 museums and galleries, 10 science centers, and a zoological park.

According to government auditors, facilities-related problems at the Smithsonian have resulted in some building closures and access restrictions and some cases of damage to the collections. For example, structural deterioration has caused closure of the 1881 Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall pending major repair and revitalization, as well as some facilities at the National Zoo. Concern over asbestos in a number of storage buildings has led to restricted access to the items within them. Some artifacts, such as two historic aircraft, have been damaged by water leaks from deteriorated pipes and roofing elements.

Many of the buildings and exhibits are beset by structural problems. The Government Accountability Office said that stopgap measures, such as draping plastic sheeting over artifacts in areas experiencing leaks, have prevented or minimized damage in other cases. Additionally, maintaining desired humidity and temperature levels for conserving the collections is a pervasive problem in some older Smithsonian facilities.

“These problems are indicative of a broad decline in the Smithsonian’s aging facilities and systems that pose a serious long-term threat to the collections,” GAO stated.

GAO pointed out that the Smithsonian is taking steps to address some of the issues. For instance, the Smithsonian recently centralized its facilities organization, adopted industry best practices to maximize the effectiveness of its resources, reviewed its operating procedures, standardized its cost-estimating practices, and established processes for prioritizing work and allocating funds. These changes, GAO stated, resulted from an internal review and a 2001 report by the National Academy of Public Administration, which recommended that the Smithsonian centralize its then highly decentralized approach to facilities management and budgeting in order to promote uniform policies and procedures, improve accountability, and avoid duplication.

Furthermore, the Smithsonian created the Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations (OFEO) in 2003 to assume responsibility for all facilities-related programs and budgets–formerly divided among four administrative offices and the individual museums and centers. According to GAO, most of the museum and center directors were either positive or neutral about the effectiveness of the reorganization so far.

“Overall, the reorganization appears to be moving in the right direction, though it has been hindered by reductions in OFEO’s staffing and budget,” GAO reported, but warned that the Smithsonian’s annual funding is not sufficient to cover the facilities projects planned for the next nine years.

“Ensuring credible, long-term budget planning for sustaining and modernizing facilities involves the Smithsonian, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Congress in examining viable funding options. While Smithsonian officials have discussed funding options internally and with various stakeholders, no consensus has emerged on how to deal with this funding challenge,” the report stated.

The Smithsonian estimates the cost to cover the revitalization efforts construction and maintenance projects between 2005 and 2013 at $2.3 billion. As a result, GAO is recommending that the Smithsonian establish a process for exploring funding options with the Administration and the Congress, which would lead to the development and implementation of a strategic funding plan to address those needs. GAO said that the Smithsonian agreed with its findings and recommendation.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47