WASHINGTON – The first artificial heart sat just feet away Wednesday while a House committee discussed up to $500 million in renovations to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and potential new Smithsonian projects.
The Smithsonian’s show-and-tell exhibit on tables in front of the committee also included a photo of Harriet Tubman and two meteorite chunks.
The 1885 photo of Harriet Tubman was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery after Ann Shumard, National Portrait Gallery senior curator of photography, did a search on eBay. Several similar searches turned up nothing or photographs that were in very poor condition. Having the latest find officially authenticated before bidding ended was a rush for Shumard.
Now preserved in formaldehyde, the first artificial heart was implanted in Haskell Karp for 64 hours in 1969. Alexandra Lord, chair and curator of medicine and science at the National Museum of American History, said it proved that artificial organs could provide a bridge for patients until human organs could be located.
Among its 19 museums, 20 libraries and nine research centers, the Smithsonian has 138 million objects. Its endowment is currently $1.3 billion, chief spokeswoman Linda St.Thomas said. This is the highest value ever.
However, major projects for the future of the museum also come with a high price tag. The latest budget request asked for $200 million from Congress for major renovation projects.
“Many of the Smithsonian’s buildings are old, historic and reaching the age where significant renewal is necessary,” Horvath said.
Of that figure, $35.65 million would go toward the estimated $500 million needed over time to renovate the National Air and Space Museum, Horvath said. That is the next priority after the completion of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open late next year.
The Air and Space building opened in 1976 and was designed to accommodate 3 million annual visitors. Currently, the building absorbs between 6 million and 7 million visitors yearly. This increased wear and tear needs to be dealt with.
“Its major building systems are at the end of their useful lives, and we have long anticipated a major renovation project there,” Horvath said.
Recent inspections have shown that the pink Tennessee marble on the outside of the building has started to “crack and bow.”
“We now have had three independent assessments by experts and they have all concluded that the stone needs to come down and be replaced. It is just too thin to be repaired,” Horvath said. “That is in addition to all of the other work that we contemplated.”
Other renovations include a smoke evacuation system in the animal facilities at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and replacing the humidification system at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art.
“It is unreliable and frequently fails, putting collections at risk for loss or damage,” Horvath said.
Also on the agenda of many committee members were potential new projects.
Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., said the Smithsonian is in “a period of rising expectations” due to proposed and soon-to-be-opened museums.
A National Museum of the American Latino and a National Women’s History Museum have been proposed to Congress. London Mayor Boris Johnson invited the Smithsonian to be part of a showing of cultural institutions on the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Vargas asked Horvath about whether the Smithsonian could “absorb the work involved” with opening a National Museum of the American Latino. Horvath responded that the Smithsonian could.
“Should Congress authorize funding for an American Latino Museum, we would be honored to have such a museum to our portfolio. We would do everything in our power to do an exceptional job,” Horvath said.
Committee Chairman Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., asked Horvath about whether the London exhibit was “appropriate” in the light of needed renovations.
Horvath said no money would be requested from Congress, despite the large amount of capital the project would require. Horvath said Johnson assured him that substantial private funding was available.
“We are a very global entity already, but most of our national work is focused on research. This would be the first opportunity to be able to tell the story of America abroad,” Horvath said, adding that a final decision about the London exhibit has not been made.
Reach reporter Sarah Fulton at [email protected] or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Download photos: Smithsonian.zip