WASHINGTON — The world's largest museum complex is bursting with stuff, from elephants to first lady gowns, biological specimens to space shuttles. Now, the Smithsonian Institution is grappling with a long-term challenge: how to maintain the 137 million items in its collection.
On Wednesday, the Committee on House Administration held a collections stewardship hearing to discuss challenges to implementing a maintenance plan to care for the art, archival footage and dinosaur bones. Smithsonian Inspector General Scott Dahl testified that the Smithsonian is still using inadequate storage space in Suitland, Md., a temporary facility built in the 1950s that was never intended for permanent storage of collection items. In 2010, one of the buildings collapsed in a snowstorm, and another succumbed to the 2011 earthquake. Hazardous materials, such as asbestos, were found in others.
"We're trying to move all the [items] out of the buildings," said G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian. "We would prefer not to use them."
A report from the Smithsonian's inspector general in 2006 showed that management facilities in Maryland were inadequate. The report also showed deficiencies in security and inventory controls, leaving collections open to theft or misplacement of objects. In an audit of the National Museum of American History, the museum could not locate 10 percent of items sampled, including historic gold watches and Roman coins. Audits of several other institutions also revealed incomplete collections.
Clough said that the Smithsonian has gone to great lengths to remedy maintenance issues, investing $462 million in collections management and $390 million in facilities improvements since 2006. House Administration Chairman Candice Miller, R-Mich., commended the Smithsonian for its improvements.
But Smithsonian leadership has also been vocal about its aging infrastructure and the long-term impact of budget cuts on maintenance.
"Sequestration is an issue for the Smithsonian," deputy undersecretary Scott Miller said in his testimony. "Our budget is stretched, and this could inadvertently impact the progress we have made."
The panel noted that the sheer volume and variety of the collection make preservation more challenging by the year. And digitizing the collection, a top priority of the Smithsonian, takes more time and manpower. In a previous interview, Clough noted that at the current rate, it would take more than half a century to digitize the entire collection.
The panel also highlighted that the Smithsonian, like many government agencies, must deal with rising operating costs because of an aging workforce. With federal compensation to employees taking a growing chunk out of federal appropriations, Clough said, the Smithsonian is engaging private partners to help with preservation because increases in federal expenditures seem unlikely.
Still, the panel assured Congress that "the treasures are safe."
"One of our curators at American History once said that the Smithsonian is in the forever business," Clough said. "Forever is a long time, and that is one of the challenges we face."