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Panel to discuss Smithsonian’s future

Until recently, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small spoke emphatically on the Smithsonian’s role as preserver and displayer of American heritage. In April he asked for the closing of two low-profile research centers — the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research — to save money and focus on programs with greater outreach. He emphasized a long-standing need for revamped exhibits, non-peeling plaster, and un-gummed carpets. He didn’t say much about the role of research and science.

The research centers remain open, but the apparent conflict of priorities between Small and Smithsonian scientists has caused a torrent of objection this year, including from Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Fri announced his resignation on May 29, in part citing Small’s proposal that exhibits be run by outside contractors and museum directors while research departments unite under a few headings and report directly to Small’s Undersecretary of Science in order to “concentrate on their research.”

In all the talk of change, the earth science programs at the NMNH have not been openly discussed. Still, some geoscientists worry about changes that might take place under the direction of Small, a former businessman.

"Right now there's a fad that museum exhibits should be 'edu-tainment,' that museums compete with Disneyland for visitors," says Sorena Sorensen, research scientist in the NMNH's Mineral Sciences department. "But we're different than Disneyland, because our exhibits have a knowledge base from real research scientists behind displays of objects that are real things." She added, "It takes time to make good exhibits.  We gave up a chunk of our research lives to our [Geology, Gems and Minerals] exhibit."

In May, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents put Small’s plans on hold, but acknowledged the need for change in an organization that, they say, lacks sufficient funding and clear direction. Other complaints from outside studies over the past decade cite esoteric research isolated from the larger scientific community. In response to these issues, the Regents have appointed an advisory panel of Smithsonian scientists to suggest changes and solutions. The panel includes two earth scientists: Doug Erwin, a paleontologist at the NMNH, and Bruce Campbell, a geophysicist at the Air and Space museum.

Erwin, who studies macroevolutionary patterns, says of prospective reorganization at NMNH, “The museum has needed to do this for over a decade. Previous secretaries have been reluctant to deal with it.” He quickly adds, “That’s not to say that Lawrence Small is going about it the right way.” Apart from citing a need to set priorities, a central focus, and a research structure, Erwin declined to make a guess at the panel’s outcome, although he thinks the plan to combine departments has been scrapped.

Until the committee submits a report slated for late winter or early spring 2002, no one knows what direction the Institution will take, much less the departments at NMNH. “We don’t know what is going to happen. Right now we’re not feeling onerous effects,” Jim Luhr, director of Mineral Sciences, said in July.

The changes will affect NMNH’s paleontology department “quite strongly,” says Brian Huber, director of the Micropaleontological Research Center, although he is not sure how. Sorensen guesses that some Smithsonian geoscience programs might be united into an institute for earth and planetary sciences.

Currently the roles of the two heavily exhibiting NMNH earth science departments, paleobiology and mineral sciences are are to collect, exhibit and research. Most research is literally behind the scenes, involving collection specimens that might not interest the casual observer, no matter how scientifically valuable. Scientists worry that programs not producing high profile or economically valuable results will lose funding. Research in the Mineral Sciences includes work on clinopyroxene crystallization in igneous rocks and the petrology of volcanic rocks in ophiolite belts — some of which is interesting only to a small cadre of collegues, and others that may make fabulous exhibits one day.

Much discussion will come down to lack of money. With the new Native American museum, heavy costs of renovating the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American Art, and a federally mandated 3.7-percent salary increase, the extra $40 million in the coming year’s proposed federal budget still falls short. As a result, some worry that Small’s solicitation of major private donations will bring consumerism to the Smithsonian, which already sports Fujifilm-sponsored panda bears at the National Zoo.

So far Mineral Sciences has been doing alright financially; department members even helped raise $13 million to build the 1997 Geology, Gem and Mineral Halls. The name of the major donor, Janet Annenberg Hooker, written across the entrance, but Sorensen says that donors had no influence on exhibits. Even the "Rocks Build Cities" cases, which describe the makeup of prominent Washington buildings, was planned before the National Stone Association donated money to support the 'Rocks' galleries.

Only time will tell if the earth science departments will continue as usual with the same staff, day-to-day tasks, and mission of studying minerals, gems, rocks, volcanoes, fossils, planets and meteorites and disseminating that information via scholarly publications, exhibits, the Web and public lectures.

“When you work for the federal government you run a risk of someone saying we have too many of you, you’re outta here,” Sorensen says. Huber agrees. “You just keep your head down and do your work,” he says.

Emily D. Johnson



This Web story is modified from the print magazine version and was posted August 9, 2001

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