GAO: Smithsonian Shortcutting on Security

WASHINGTON -- The Smithsonian Institution's maintenance backlog has grown to $2.5 billion as the museum complex faces problems such as corrosion of historic airplanes and leaky pools at the National Zoo, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Friday.

The GAO noted some progress in addressing maintenance issues since its last report in 2005. But it urged the Smithsonian to more thoroughly consider alternatives to government funding - including charging admission - to address the maintenance problems.

The new backlog estimate is an increase from $2.3 billion in 2005, the report said.

Acting Smithsonian Secretary Cristian Samper said the museum complex agreed to the recommendations and said the institution is already in the middle of a more thorough analysis of funding options.

At the same time, Smithsonian officials emphasized that upkeep has always been paid for by the federal government. The Smithsonian Board of Regents has considered charging admission three times in about a dozen years and always rejected the idea, she said.

"It has always been Congress' responsibility to care for the national collections and the buildings," Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said.

Among the critical maintenance problems cited in Friday's report:

- A lack of temperature and humidity control at the Museum of Air and Space's storage facilities in Suitland, Md., has corroded historic planes.

- Recurring leaks at the Museum of African Art forced the museum to close one gallery several times from 2004 to 2006.

- Power capacity problems caused by inadequate electrical systems has forced the Air and Space Museum to occasionally close galleries.

- The National Zoo's sea lion and seal pools lost an average of 110,000 gallons of water a day as of July, with an annual replacement cost of $297,000.

- Officials at the Sackler Gallery reported a "near miss" in which a major leak occurred in a holding area just three weeks before the arrival of $500 million worth of art on loan.

The GAO also questioned security at the museums, finding that the number of guards throughout the complex has decreased despite an increase in the Smithsonian's square footage. Two of the most popular museums, the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History, have seen a 31 percent decrease in security personnel since 2003, according to the report.

The Smithsonian has begun employing gallery attendants in an effort to help fill security gaps and is constantly advertising vacancies for security guards to help deal with high turnover, St. Thomas said.

In a letter to board chairman Roger Sant, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would hold a hearing of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee regarding the GAO report on Nov. 7. She said she was concerned about the lack of a funding strategy to address the facilities and security needs.


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