Four million visitors annually flock to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to view such priceless national treasures as the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night of his assassination and a military uniform donned by George Washington.
But miniature busts of the iconic presidents for sale in one of the museum’s gift shops come with a distinctly un-American inscription: “crafted in China.”
The issue has caused a stir on Capitol Hill, embarrassing museum officials and spurring one congressman to offer a bill that would require the Smithsonian Institution to sell only American-made souvenirs.
“It is utterly absurd, and frankly insulting, that the patriotic American mementos they are taking home today are stamped with the words ‘Made in China,’” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat, in a statement Thursday announcing his “Buy American at the Smithsonian Act.”
Mr. Rahall’s bill would prevent the Smithsonian from using federal money to construct or refurbish a building unless all items in its gift shops are American made. About 70 percent of the museum’s budget comes from the federal government.
The Smithsonian’s 19 museums, galleries and zoo last year hosted more than 30 million visitors, with its gift shops selling almost $44 million in merchandise, according to Mr. Rahall, who called the foreign-made knickknacks an “insult to American workers and artisans.”
“With millions of Americans out of work, we should be doing everything we can to create jobs in the U.S.,” said Mr. Rahall, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, brought the issue to light in January after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit. In a letter to museum Director Brent D. Glass, the senator called the practice of selling Chinese-made souvenir busts of American presidents “pretty pathetic!”
On Wednesday, a day after the senator met with Mr. Glass and Smithsonian Enterprises President Tom Ott, the Smithsonian announced only U.S.-made merchandise would be sold at the Museum of American History’s “Price of Freedom” gift shop — which features presidential-themed items — by early July.
Smithsonian officials say they have a long-standing policy of buying American-made products whenever possible. And Smithsonian Enterprises, which oversees the gift shops, says it will seek more American suppliers for all Smithsonian stores, especially those with significant American themes such as at the National Air and Space Museum and the American Art Museum.
But Smithsonian officials say many souvenirs just aren’t made in the U.S., forcing them to buy merchandise made overseas.
And defining exactly what is and isn’t an American product can get tricky. While the presidential busts are manufactured in China, they were conceived and designed by a Virginia company, said Melinda Machado, a spokeswoman with the Museum of American History.
“So there is still an American component to those presidential busts,” Ms. Machado said. “It’s complicated.”
Mr. Rahall’s legislation also would be impractical to impose throughout the Smithsonian chain of museums and galleries, many of which feature art and artifacts from other regions of the world, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.
“I think that one doesn’t probably want to buy craft made in Wisconsin in the African Art Museum,” she said.
Mr. Sanders said he welcomed the Smithsonian’s efforts to offer more U.S.-made souvenirs. But he added that, if they don’t follow through on their pledge, he is prepared to introduce legislation calling for taxpayer-supported museums to sell more merchandise made in America.