Smithsonian Institution Announces Biggest Single Donation in its 154-year History

September 18, 2000
Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small announced today that Kenneth E. Behring, a California philanthropist, developer and former owner of the Seattle Seahawks, has increased his support of the Smithsonian to $100 million by making today’s donation of $80 million to the National Museum of American History. It is the largest single gift ever to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1997, Behring gave $20 million to the National Museum of Natural History. In recognition of this magnificent gift, the building that houses the National Museum of American History, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., at Constitution Avenue and 14th Street, will be inscribed with the designation "Behring Center" beneath the museum’s name. Secretary Small said, "A gift of this magnitude is unprecedented. We are delighted to honor this great benefactor to the Smithsonian Institution by establishing the Behring Center. Mr. Behring’s generous contribution will allow us to begin a complete transformation and modernization of the National Museum of American History, the only museum of its kind in the world." "It is private philanthropy such as this gift from Ken, combined with our Congressional support, that will move the Smithsonian Institution into the 21st century," Small noted. "And, as if a contribution of $100 million were not enough, Ken has made a commitment to work with us to raise additional funds for the Museum of American History, which enables us to create a virtually new museum, rededicated to the history, contributions and achievements of Americans," Small added. Behring said, "I cannot think of a more fitting way to give thanks to this land of opportunity than by helping the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History showcase the ideas, the technologies and, most of all, the people who continue to make the United States the greatest country in the world." National Museum of American History Director Spencer Crew said, "We are going to tell the compelling stories of the American experience in new and exciting ways, thanks to this generous gift." Initial plans, he said, call for the creation of thematic exhibition halls highlighting the history and contributions of the American people in preserving and protecting freedom and democracy. Another area will be devoted to individuals who made great contributions to our country and who truly epitomize "the American spirit." The strategic planning for the "new" Museum of American History permanent exhibitions will be done by the museum staff with the advice and support of a panel of Americans who are well-known experts in a variety of fields. The first project to benefit from the Behring contribution will be "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," the only major comprehensive exhibition about that uniquely American job—the presidency—which opens Nov. 15 with artifacts representing presidents from George Washington through Bill Clinton. The exhibition will receive $4 million from the Behring gift. Behring, 72, began his career selling cars in his hometown of Monroe, Wis., and within a decade was involved in land development projects in Florida and later in California where he built planned communities and other developments, including Tamarac near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. By the late 1960s, Behring had become the largest single-family home-builder in the southeastern United States. In the early 1970s, Behring moved to northern California where he developed the community of Blackhawk and established the Museum of Art, Science and Culture in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley. From 1988 to 1997, he owned the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Behring has operated the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville, Calif., since 1988. Recently, Behring and his son, David Behring, director of the Blackhawk Museum, have expanded the breadth of the museum’s mission and are presenting exhibitions on a variety of subjects. This past June, with a $15 million commitment, Behring founded Wheelchairs for the World Foundation, the goal of which is to assist the millions of people who are immobilized because they do not have access to wheelchairs or cannot afford to buy one. He is committed to raising an additional $150 million for the Foundation to provide one million wheelchairs over the next five years to people worldwide in need. Also this summer, he contributed $7.5 million to a University of California initiative that trains principals to become more effective leaders in urban schools. With this $80 million contribution, the Smithsonian has achieved its most successful fund-raising year ever—an approximate total of $200 million, up from $147 million for the last fiscal year. The Smithsonian has recently received several major gifts from individuals, foundations and corporations. Earlier this year, the Archives of American Art received $12 million from the Brown Foundation of Houston and the National Postal Museum recorded a $10 million pledge from former Postmaster General Winton Blount. In 1999, the Smithsonian received its second largest donation—$60 million from Steven F. Udvar-Hazy for the National Air and Space Museum’s planned center at Dulles Airport, which will be named for the donor. Also in 1999, the National Museum of American History reported a $10 million contribution from Polo Ralph Lauren for the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project. Over a period of several years, the museum received nearly $20 million from Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson to establish and support the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The National Museum of American History has set a fund-raising goal of $200 million to achieve its vision. Ivan Selin, chairman of the museum’s board, noted that the Behring donation and pledge of additional fund-raising assistance will make that goal a reality. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.