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Smithsonian still using poor storage facilities

  • Article by: BRETT ZONGKER
  • Associated Press
  • July 17, 2013 - 1:35 PM

WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution continues to use substandard facilities in suburban Maryland to store important art and science collections, despite risks cited in a 2006 audit, according to the inspector general of the museum complex.

Scott Dahl testified before a congressional committee Wednesday that there are "significant risks" for artifacts stored at the Smithsonian's Garber facility in Suitland. Many of its buildings are metal sheds with poor or nonexistent environmental controls. However, inadequate funding is limiting plans to improve the care of collections.

The Garber facility dates to the 1950s and 1960s and was intended to be temporary. One metal building that held historic aircraft, spacecraft and space-themed artwork collapsed in a 2010 snowstorm, exposing items to freezing temperatures. Other buildings contain asbestos or other hazardous materials. And some buildings were damaged by a 2011 earthquake.

"The risk to the collections has been clearly demonstrated," Dahl said.

The House Administration Committee called the hearing to seek an update on past audits of collections that include millions of objects held by the National Museum of American History, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History.

Beyond storage facilities, past audits cited problems with inventory controls with some objects that could not be located and malfunctioning security systems. Two new audits were launched this year to monitor the museums' improvements.

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said most audit recommendations have been satisfied in recent years. The Smithsonian has invested $462 million in collections management since 2006 and $390 million in facilities projects that affect collections care, he said. New storage facilities have been built or renovated in northern Virginia, at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Maryland and in New Jersey for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.

The Garber facility in Maryland is still in use because the Smithsonian needed the space for its vast collections, Clough said. More investments are needed to fully address the Smithsonian's deficiencies, he said.

Clough created a senior management position to oversee the care of collections and to guide an improvement plan. But in the months and years ahead, budget cuts in Congress could limit future progress. The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its budget from Congress. Clough said it's difficult to raise private funds for maintenance needs.

"Our long-range plan is based on a public-private partnership approach, which has been successful to date, but this concept faces increased challenges as federal budgets decline," Clough wrote in testimony submitted to the committee. "Should they remain in effect, the sequestration reductions will inevitably reduce the funding we can commit to collections care and stewardship responsibilities."

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