The Demands of Running a 21st-Century Museum

Incoming Smithsonian secretary David Skorton says the institution will continue to be accessible to all.

Max Taylor/The Atlantic
When David Skorton was announced as the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution earlier this year, almost as much was made of his personal history as a jazz flautist and a cardiologist as was inferred from his career history at Cornell University and the University of Iowa. But his legacy at Cornell, where as president he's resided over fundraising efforts that have totaled some $4 billion, offers clues about how he might navigate the challenges facing the Smithsonian in the 21st century.
Skorton's biggest regret at both university presidencies, he told The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott at the Washington Ideas Forum Wednesday, was that he hadn't been able "to change the balance more effectively between access and affordability." One of the most difficult questions he faces when he arrives at the Smithsonian next year will be how to reconcile the institution's commitment to accessibility with the financial burden of running its museums, research centers, and educational programs in a time of ever-shrinking budgets.
Although Skorton has talked in the past about the need to carefully analyze the Smithsonian's business model, he emphasized that this doesn't mean introducing entrance fees for visitors. "I think one of the fabulous aspects of the Smithsonian is that everybody can get in there, and that these days, you don't even have to come to Washington to do it," he said, referring to the ongoing efforts to digitize the treasures in the nation's attic. "It's a very populist idea and a very populist ideal." While nonprofits of all kinds are going to have to be more and more creative in the future, he said, he has "no intention of making the institution less accessible."
In addition to budgetary challenges, the secretary of the Smithsonian has to balance the demands of running a modern cultural institution with the necessities of making nice to Congress, which contributes around 70 percent of the organization's budget each year (in 2013, the sequester and the government shutdown led to significant drops in revenue).
Kennicott mentioned "Hide/Seek," a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that sparked controversy for its exploration of gay portraiture. After Catholic activists complained about one particular video in the show—depicting ants crawling over a crucifix—that work was removed by then-secretary Wayne Clough. Republican leaders Eric Cantor and John Boehner both condemned the show, with Boehner saying that officials at the Smithsonian should either "acknowledge the mistake or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January."
Skorton said he wasn't prepared to second guess Clough's decision, but he stated that the arts and humanities by their nature often push boundaries. "I think creative activity of any stripe tends to foster controversy," he said, mentioning how the Smithsonian had recently published data linking human activity to climate change. "I think we need to be part of the science world and the cultural world in a way that's done carefully and thoughtfully, but not be afraid of controversy."
While Skorton acknowledged that he's been occupied with his current job and hasn't yet had time to consider his future legacy, he said that he considers the "bully pulpit" of his next job to be a privilege and a responsibility, giving him a soapbox to debate "the broader needs of the country in a way that's reasonable."