City Desk

A Point of Order: Charging for Some Smithsonian Museums Is Illegal

The Smithsonian is an expensive institution to run, especially since its museums are free. Every couple years, an idea is floated to start charging as a way to cover more of its expenses and reduce the burden on taxpayers for keeping the world's largest museum complex up and running.

Members of President Obama's deficit reduction commission are proposing that the Smithsonian start charging admission, and they even have a price-point in mind: $7.50 per visitor.

Cue the outrage! The $1 Smithsonian admission price Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran proposed back in 2006 seems like a steal in comparison.

But there's one big sticking point: For some Smithsonian museums, it is unlawful to charge for admission.

As Jacqueline Trescott reported in The Washington Post back in 2006, Sheila Burke, then the Smithsonian's No. 2 officer, "noted that four museums are legally forbidden from charging. The laws that created the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden prohibit admission fees. In addition, Charles Lang Freer's will, which provided for the creation of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, stated there could never be a charge."

So everyone who is freaking out about this deficit-reduction proposal should just cool their jets. It's not like the Smithsonian can put up signs over the weekend and start charging. Many of the deficit-reduction recommendations would require legislation to make happen. And if past reactions to museum admission proposals tell us anything about potential fights down the road, charging for the Smithsonian is just as much a third-rail as toying with Social Security or Medicare.

Photo by luckywhitegirl via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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  • Tim Krepp

    Theoretically, any legislation enacting a fee could change previous legislation forbidding it (not sure how they'd get around the Freer Gallery.

    But it still indicates the very, very sloppy nature of this, for lack of a better word, proposal. I'm more outraged at the 9th grade civics class level of proposal writing than on the merits.

    Great article, btw!

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  • Kathleen

    Speaking of 9th grade, Tim, you spell the mayor-elect's name: G*R*A*Y* (not Grey, as you did in a recent post for THIH. Those who live in glass houses...)

    The Smithsonian issue is a minor topic dominating an otherwise major issue. Despite snarky comments and the pandering involving local sacred cows, I really hope people treat the Commission's work with the respect it deserves. It's called our future. I don't think it should be held hostage to the defective moral compass of the baby boom generation.

  • cminus

    I really hope people treat the Commission's work with the respect it deserves.

    I, for one, treat the Commission's work with all the respect it deserves. Which is to say, virtually none.

    Any deficit reduction commission which calls for massive tax cuts for the wealthy, and tax increases on the poor and middle class, is not serious about deficit reduction. Someone who wanted to eliminate the deficit quickly would call for tax increases across the board, and someone for whom deficit reduction is one goal among many could call for a net tax increase, increasing some taxes while holding others constant or reducing them. Calling for a net tax cut is not the behavior of anyone who wants to reduce the deficit.

    Any deficit reduction commission which calls only for a cap on federal revenues is not serious about deficit reduction. A cap on federal expenditures is a serious proposal. A cap on both is at least somewhat serious. A cap on revenues alone is the opposite of serious; in many circumstances it would guarantee deficit increases, not reductions.

    If this is what our overlords consider serious deficit reduction strategy, it may be time to take back all the mean things I've said about Karl Marx.

  • Cheryl

    What I want to know is -- who pays/funds the other 25%?
    I live in DC, we are overburden with taxes as is; I hope DC doesn't pick up the remainder.

  • Kathleen

    Hmm... Turns out the former budget director doesn't find the report silly, or of 9th grade quality. I'm going to guess that he knows more about it then you guys. Maybe instead of carping on blogs you should devote your energy to, I don't know, productive political engagement?

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