- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

Paris, Louvre: EUR 8.5.

Paris, Ascension de la Tour Eiffel: EUR 4.2 1er etage; EUR 11, Sommet.

London, Madame Tussauds: £23.99 [$42 adults]; £19.99 [$35.45 children].

London, Buckingham Palace: £14 [$24.83 adults]; £12.50 pounds [$22.17 students].

Venice, Musei Civici Veneziani (The Museums of St. Mark’s Square): EUR 11.

Rome, Musei Vaticani: EUR 12.

Florence, Firenze Mvsei, Galleria dell’Accademia (Omaggio al David): EUR 8.

New York: Statue of Liberty ferry, $17.

New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, $15.

Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, $0.

Washington, D.C.: Washington Monument, $0.

Value of viewing all of the above: Priceless.

When Rep. James P. Moran had the audacity to suggest in Congress last week that visitors to America’s premier museums on the Mall pay a pittance of a $1 donation for admittance, the Virginia Democrat may as well have announced he planned to take mother’s milk from babies, judging from the swift, sour reaction.

This penny-wise, pound-foolish criticism prompted me to pull out the colorful tickets to the world’s most famous museums that my daughter and I collected last summer during our whirlwind tour of Europe.

Take a look at the sample of hottest tickets. This wasn’t a cheap trip.

The value of the U.S. dollar to the euro was 0.83633 in July. It was 0.818599 yesterday.

We were a small family of two among hundreds of multigenerational American groups, some as large as eight, all too excited to pay the hefty price, get up at the crack of dawn and stand in long lines that wrapped around stone courtyards and blocks for the privilege of filing past the “Mona Lisa,” gazing up at the Sistine Chapel or soaking in the statue of “David.”

For the price of visiting only one of the above-mentioned collections, people can spend an entire day on the Mall, visit all manner of museums and government buildings and not spend a dime if they pack their lunch — and still have money left over for a decent dinner downtown.

Talk about a tourist treat.

But that same American family will fork over $49.99 each for a day at nearby Six Flags America amusement park in Prince George’s County. Or, they can trek down Interstate 95 to Kings Dominion, where they can ride to the top of a much shorter replica of the Eiffel Tower for $49.99 each, plus high-priced gas.

Really, is it too much to ask one little buck to roam around in America’s amazing attic? I think not.

Here we go again, wanting something for nothing. Yes, we pay taxes, but just how much do we expect those coffers to cover when we are a nation that will be at war for the unforeseeable future?

Unfortunately, art and artifacts are seen as luxuries in this country, although their preservation is as important as securing American safety, here and abroad.

And the preservation of the peoples’ possessions — more than 100 million objects — doesn’t come cheap either.

The Smithsonian hasn’t charged people to visit its museums for 160 years. Mr. Moran merely suggested during a congressional hearing that perhaps the American public would be willing to pitch in $1 to pay for badly needed repairs.

The 600-structure complex, including the National Zoo, is crumbling. At least $51 million has been earmarked for repairs in this year’s proposed budget, but officials contend that it would take $94 million a year to take care of the backlog of repairs. This figure does not take into account the number of new museums coming on board, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture slated for the Mall.

Mr. Moran said keeping the Smithsonian free is becoming more difficult to justify given the large amount of money it needs for operations and repairs and the increasing competition for cash in the federal budget.

“If you have 25 million visitors, that would be $25 million,” Mr. Moran said.

The idea of charging a fee was considered by the Smithsonian Board of Regents but rejected, said Sheila Burke, the deputy secretary and chief operating officer.

Some suggest that Mr. Moran get Congress to dig deeper. But this is the nation’s legislature that has cut funding for basic human services. Others suggest that the Smithsonian step up its fundraising efforts and membership drives. But this is a nation weary from digging deep for the victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Always we must insist that government agencies tighten their belts and make do with what they are allotted the best they can. But we have to look no further than the zoo to see what havoc cutting corners has wrought on some of the animals there.

Smithsonian officials are left with few options after government and donor largess, and that is to charge at the front door to those museums that are not precluded from charging admission under their charter.

Average wage earners, some student groups and seniors and the poor could be offered discounts so they would not be excluded from enjoying and being enlightened by the nation’s treasures. Or, the museums could offer rotating free weekdays as other facilities do. Critics worry that charging admission might hurt attendance and have the adverse effect of reducing collections from concession stands and gift shops. Not so.

Washington, D.C., has been and always will be a prime destination for tourists. Just check out the folks lining Constitution Avenue this weekend for the Parade of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. A dollar a head will not hurt anyone to ensure that tomorrow’s children will get to view America’s priceless history in a Smithsonian structure that’s as first-rate as any Europe has to offer.

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