- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

Free admission to the Smithsonian Institution’s museums and National Zoo stands out in the District, where everything has its price.

But with deteriorating buildings, a maintenance backlog in the billions and fewer public dollars to spare, one member of Congress says no fees makes no sense.

“I cannot understand why we don’t charge a fee,” Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said after hearing House testimony about insufficient funds for repairs.

The Smithsonian in its 160-year history has never charged to visit the museums, stocked with displays of everything from dinosaur bones and the Hope Diamond to the original Star-Spangled Banner and thousands of famous airplanes and spaceships.

Officials said they are not about to start charging now.

“We want it so that as many people as possible can come in and see the Smithsonian collections,” spokeswoman Becky Haberacker said.

With 24 million visitors last year, asking $1 a head would raise $24 million.

“To fork over $1 for an adult, or 50 cents for a child or senior citizen, is not asking a whole lot,” Mr. Moran said.

In New York City, it costs $20 to get into the Museum of Modern Art and $15 is the suggested admission amount at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the District, the Corcoran Gallery of Art asks $8, and the International Spy Museum takes $15. In Paris, the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay charge about $10 and $9, respectively.

Sheila Burke, the Smithsonian’s deputy secretary and chief operating officer, said even a modest fee could disproportionately affect the people whom officials most want to attract: families.

“One of the things that we very frequently hear when visitors tour our museums is how extraordinarily excited they are” that they are free, she told Mr. Moran.

Jennifer Dimmick of Perry, Ohio, said that the free admission for her and her young family was “a nice draw” and that such fees last year in Chicago “cost a small fortune.”

Mrs. Burke said an entry fee also could hurt the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and art galleries because no other federally supported museum or monument in the District charges admission.

The Smithsonian receives about 80 percent of its money from the government, most of which goes to salaries and expenses. The institution received $615 million from Congress this year and has requested $644.4 million for next year.

Last year, government auditors said the Smithsonian would need $255 million a year in the next nine years, about $2.3 billion, to fix what Mrs. Burke said is a deteriorating infrastructure. Some of its buildings are more than 100 years old, and many have heating, air-conditioning and electrical problems.

Introducing a cover charge, however, would not be as simple as it may seem.

The National Museum of African Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Freer Gallery of Art are prohibited from charging admission either by legislation or by the gift agreements that created them, Mrs. Haberacker said.

She said the Smithsonian’s 17-member board of regents — which includes the chief justice of the United States, the vice president of the United States and members of Congress — has rejected the idea of admission fees three times, most recently in 2002.

Still, some museum visitors said they would pay a few bucks for admission.

Steve Chatman, 45, of Columbus, Ohio, said that he would pay but that admission should remain free for young people and others who cannot afford it.

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