- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Smithsonian Institution scientists and historians, upset over the museum system's direction under Secretary Lawrence M. Small, yesterday said they felt bolstered when a major donor withdrew a $38 million gift for a Smithsonian exhibit on Monday.
"In a certain sense, we feel vindicated. But we are sorry to lose money we desperately need," said historian Paul Forman. "If this had been done properly, we could have come to an agreement on the exhibit."
The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation in May had pledged to give $38 million to the Smithsonian to establish "The Spirit of America" exhibit at the National Museum of American History. The 10,000-square-foot exhibit was to open in 2004 and feature the lives of 75 to 100 prominent Americans.
The foundation withdrew the donation Monday, citing controversy over the exhibit. The $1.5 million given to the museum last year for planning the exhibit will not be refunded.
Smithsonian critics say Mr. Small's push to generate revenue by commercializing the museum and creating entertainment-style exhibits jeopardizes the integrity of the 156-year-old institution. Mr. Small became the Smithsonian's head two years ago.
Smithsonian officials yesterday declined to comment.
The Smithsonian's Congress of Scholars had hoped the Reynolds Foundation would be less involved in planning "The Spirit of America" exhibit.
"I think there was possibly room to have worked this out with negotiation, but that didn't happen here," said congress Vice President Helena Wright.
Mrs. Wright said there was a disconnect between the Reynolds Foundation and the museum as to how exhibits are generally put together. "Generally, the [historical] exhibits are based on objects; in this case, the object was people and people of mostly present significance," she said.
The exhibit was to highlight noted Americans, including ice-skating champion Dorothy Hamill, professional basketball legend Michael Jordan, lifestyle doyenne Martha Stewart and civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Exhibit curator Peter Liebhold said the project was in the early planning stages and there was no final list of achievers.
"We had just prepared a document explaining the framework for the exhibit," said Mr. Liebhold. "I'm disappointed the project won't go forward and that we were unable to bring the project to the American public."
Mr. Liebhold said the exhibit became difficult to work on, given the animosity toward the project by more than 70 curators and historians in the history museum. The exhibit became a scapegoat in the crusade against Mr. Small's agenda, Mr. Liebhold said.
"In this case, there was a lot of discussion from folks who didn't know too much about the project, and a great many other issues were raised that had little to do with what we were doing," he said.
Museum curators saw the exhibit as a self-serving agenda with a series of stories, objects, and pictures of famous people with little historical value. Mrs. Wright said her group wanted to see a commitment to having a connection with the past along with the objects.
"I am not saying you have to be dead to be in a history museum, but we would have wanted to provide more background and examples starting from objects," she said.
In addition, the congress remains upset that Robert Fri, former director of the National Museum of Natural History, was never consulted about the project. Mr. Fri resigned last year, citing problems with the museum system's direction.


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