The Smithsonian Institution, America's vast museum and research operation, has announced it is lending its name to a line of furniture. Chairs, sinks, chandeliers and fireplace tools for sale in the new "Smithsonian Collection" will be modeled after the historic items in its nineteen museums.
This new marketing initiative signals what critics see as worrisome commercialization of the Smithsonian. Just a couple of weeks ago, the American Petroleum Institute cancelled plans for a five-million-dollar donation after the world's largest museum complex was pelted with criticism for allowing the big oil industry lobby group to sponsor a new Ocean Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. Earlier this fall, a television producer who wanted to shoot images of the U.S. airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan during World War II was turned down because the Smithsonian had signed a contract granting exclusive access to a cable TV network.
Though not a government agency, the nonprofit Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its funding from the federal government. It says it needs commercial dollars to close a $1-billion deficit in its budget for facilities, many of which date to the nineteenth century.
What's next? ask critics. National Zoo-brand pet food? As quasi-government agencies get more and more corporate money, how can cash-strapped Congress resist outside bucks to pump into true federal agencies?
How does a Department of Energy Candy Bar sound?
Look, these days people are used to hearing commercials in their radio programs. A little thirty-second spot for hair tonic, tucked into the next VOA newscast, wouldn't be so bad, would it?