Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History


(II. A Challenging Context—NMAH Strengths, Problems, Constraints, and Challenges)

E. Constraints

In attempting to remedy its problems and meet its challenges, NMAH has access to far more in the way of human and material resources than most museums do. But of course, it also has significant constraints. Among the many constraints, these three are particularly important:

Inherent subject matter complexity and political sensitivity

As a national museum, NMAH has a responsibility to present, in some reasonable measure, the fullness of American history. That history is complex. It covers many centuries, hundreds of interesting and important theme lines, and a near-limitless number of topics. Its fair and accurate interpretation is not always straightforward, unambiguous, or uncontested. In order for NMAH to fit presentations within its available physical space, selections must be made. And in order to present exhibits that are readily comprehensible, a degree of simplification is required. So choice and interpretation are inescapable. Yet they have costs. Not every subject, point of view, aesthetic preference, or style of engagement can be accommodated. When meaningful choice is made, some people are bound to be disappointed. Because the Museum is a national museum, because its subject matter is tied to issues of national identity, and because national identity is rightly a matter of intense public concern, this disappointment is not merely private. At NMAH, the necessity for choice bears with it -- at all times -- significant potential for public controversy. That controversy can and should be kept within reasonable bounds; but the risk of exceeding such bounds is ever present.

Financial demands in excess of currently available resources

The Museum's basic plant is in need of repair. Many of its important exhibits and collections require renewal. This is partly because the passage of time naturally dictates requirements for updating. Renewal is also needed to take advantage of new presentation techniques for the benefit of all audiences -- especially young audiences, which have become accustomed to exciting, interactive, visual displays. The architectural and aesthetic concerns noted above require attention. Decommissioning or moving old exhibits with large, heavy objects bears special logistical costs. Important emerging claims require attention as well: accelerated digital storage and retrieval of collections; increased educational programming; and more creative use of web-based technology.

Throughout its history, NMAH has benefited from the generosity of private donors. Recently, it has attracted several unusually large private contributions -- without which it would be impossible to advance the process of renewal in a significant way. But the important and legitimate claims that are evident exceed currently committed resources. These claims are made in a context of restraint upon federal discretionary budgets (for expenditures not directly related to security) and increased competition for scarce charitable contributions. (For a summary of NMAH funding, please see Appendix D.) The practical fact of the matter is that the Commission recommendations offered below would require substantial increases in both public and private funding in order to be implemented.

Long-term contractual obligations

In order to achieve its mission, NMAH is required to seek private funding. This would be true even if federal funding were substantially increased because federal funds are limited not only in amount, but also in purpose. In general, federal funds have been oriented toward the support of basic operating expenses and infrastructure, not the development of exhibits per se. (While Congress and the President could change this limitation, many have welcomed it as a protection against possible partisan or parochial politicization of Museum content.) Private funding often requires long-term contractual commitments. These commitments must be honored as a matter of law and as a matter of prudence (with an eye toward future donations). The accumulation of such commitments is now considerable. (Please see Appendices E and H.)

Recent long-term commitments will allow the Museum's substantial renewal to move forward. And in general, long-term commitments can help relieve NMAH curators and exhibition staff from what might otherwise be excessive time demands for future fund-raising. But the accumulation of long-term commitments also has costs.

These costs can be exacerbated by the major long-term exhibition syndrome. In the competition for public attention and acclaim, many museums and donors have been led to support large, highly promoted "major exhibitions." The Smithsonian community (and NMAH within it) has not shown immunity to this tendency. That is understandable. Such exhibits can increase museum funding and attendance, and help provide a focus around which other museum activities may be organized. To this extent, they have obvious appeal and merit. At the same time, however, two of the unintended costs they may entail are especially noteworthy. First, insofar as they involve long-term contractual commitments of large amounts of floor space, they may limit the museum's ability to change in the future (even though they may serve as helpful change agents in the near term). Second, they not only reduce the museum's ability to adapt in the future; they also decrease the space available for smaller and shorter-term exhibits. They thus reduce the number of exhibition topics the museum may treat, and limit its ability to develop new exhibits in emerging areas of interest or capability. This, in turn, may have two further undesirable consequences. It may reduce the museum's ability to address a broad and representative range of topics and themes. And it may reduce the number of opportunities for creative expression by the specialized curators the museum must attract and retain in order to fulfill its long-term mission. So, as with many of these problems, a reasonable balance must be struck between short- and long-term commitments.

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