The Smithsonian is a political bauble?

The Smithsonian has been sending mixed signals for a while now. They allowed the Discovery Institute to use their halls to promote an ID movie (at least they later disavowed any association), but refused to have anything to do with Flock of Dodos, and they aren’t going to endorse any Darwin events for 2009, the bicentennial of his birth…and then there was the whole ghastly Sternberg affair, in which we learned that a research associate there was a baraminologist, helping IDists get articles published. I love the museum, but something weird has been going on in the administration.

Get ready for more disillusionment. The director is a Republican appointee, and he’s been pursuing the Republican dream for a while now: no accountability, padding expense accounts, cronyism, junkets, wholesale looting. And getting paid almost $1 million per year in salary. Scientists don’t get paid that much—it almost makes one wish there were a way to get a Ph.D. in Bureaucracy.


  1. says

    Boston’s MoS is currently hosting a special exhibit on Darwin (I haven’t been, yet; I’m waiting for a friend’s schedule to free up so we can go together), so I doubt they’ll shy away from any mention of evolution in 2009.

  2. llewelly says

    … it almost makes one wish there were a way to get a Ph.D. in Bureaucracy.

    I believe that’s known as an MBA.

  3. says

    What exactly does one learn in an MBA, anyway? Seems to me half the problems in the modern corporate culture stem from the fact that all the bosses come up through middle management, without ever doing time in the trenches. Based on that I’ve always been under the assumption that there are a hell of a lot of business execs that are great at pushing paper and spending money but don’t really have a clue what the core business of their companies is really all about.

    Or am I talking like a luddite from the 50s?

  4. Tukla in Iowa says

    What exactly does one learn in an MBA, anyway?

    All I know about MBAs is that they’re the only students who wear suits to class.

  5. says

    Let me say something about these natural history museums. The three largest were all lousy to me with regard to Flock of Dodos. Smithsonian freaked out over interviewing one of their staff and said their cheesy comments two weeks ago in the Seattle P.I. article, AMNH wouldn’t allow me to film the dodo exhibit, and Chicago Field Museum sent back an e-mail passing on our Darwin Day screening request with a comment buried in it that the title was potentially offensive to their visitors who are interested in “I.T.” (sic).

    NOW, in very stark contrast, most everyone from the #4 museum (Denver Museum of Nature and Science) on down have been enthusiastically supportive of the film and openly said they want to join in the defense of evolution.

    In particular, the leadership at DMNH and Seattle Pacific Science Center and North Carolina State Museum of Natural Science and the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History and the Utah Museum of Natural History and … well, the list is very lengthy of all these smaller museums who are there for the cause. And add to that the Harvard and Yale museums who bravely opened their doors to us when filming.

    In the end, it echoes a bit the sound bite in the film from Jeff Brown of Dover who said, “I think at the grass roots level the sincerity is genuine, but the further up the food chain you go, the more suspect things become.”

  6. samuel crane says

    While the AMNH may not have let Randy Olsen film the dodo exhibit, you can’t seriously make the argument that the AMNH is in any way weak-kneed on evolution. Hello Darwin exhibit (made by the AMNH and to be on exhibit in London in 2009) and Hall of Human Origins and Darwin Digital Library of Evolution!

    While I appreciate Flock of Dodos, it’s not like material support of the film is a litmus test of one’s position on this issue.

  7. Grumpy says

    llwelly: “I believe that’s known as an MBA.”

    Except for two things: that’s a master’s degree, and it’s in business administration.

    What PZ wants to get is a PhD in Public Administration. You can get one at Syracuse, University of Georgia, Portland State… a lot of places.

  8. says

    Very good point Mr. Samuel Crane. In fact, AMNH hosted our screening of the Flock of Dodos at the Margaret Mead Film Festival last November, and of course their Darwin Exhibit was tremendous. I’m just still a little cranky over the way I was treated when I asked to film the dodo exhibit. But then again, I think someone sensed I would be using the extinct bird for something more than just an ornithological essay. So I shouldn’t blame them for being a little suspect.

  9. llewelly says

    Thank you, Gregory. I’d forgotten there were Ph.D.s offered for public administration from reputable schools.

    However I’m afraid ‘I believe that’s a Ph.D. in public administration’ wouldn’t ring as well … due in part ot the Scott Adams of the world, many here have a low opinion of MBAs, far more so than Ph.D.s in public administration.

  10. Cassdenata says

    Honestly, that is a travesty to not celebrate Darwin’s birthday in our Nations Museum. We need to bombard them with letters, letters to the editors and the like before 2009’s festivities. Try our best to make sure this doesn’t happen.

  11. says

    How in the Sam-hell does the United States ever hope to win the admiration of a global society if the asshats in charge of one of our most precious, scientific catalogues and research bakers, is controlled by Conservative Christians who have their heads so far up their ass that they can give themselves a visual colonoscopy? I don’t normally swear like an enlisted man during FLEET WEEK, but…what the fuck? Our nation’s primary museum is not going to honor the contributions of Darwin? And, to add insult to injury, the director gave the greenlight on a project that does NOTHING to advance modern discovery? Who fucking hired this guy?

  12. Science Goddess says

    RE: The Smithsonian and Darwin exhibit. My guess is that they are afraid that they will lose their funding if they do a Darwin exhibit. You know that if the Fundies can affect NIH funding for projects they don’t like, they’re likely to do the same w/federal museums.

    There’s plenty of Darwinia in their magazine, tho.


  13. SI-staff says

    It’s a pity that bloggers can divorce an Institution from its administration. Think of the staff and programs stifled by this greedy leadership! There is your story folks … why is the public not outraged that our national collections suffer in deteriorating conditions while the top administrators rake in outrageous salaries and perks?

  14. Flex says

    Brian X wrote, “What exactly does one learn in an MBA, anyway?”

    As I’m almost done with my MBA program at the University of Michigan, I can at least answer this question with a modicum of knowledge.

    One important part of an MBA program seems to be giving the students an overview of a lot of different facets of business in order to not sound stupid when dealing with subordinates. E.g. we learned enough about logistics to understand the jargon of the supplier purchasing and distribution areas. We didn’t study logistics to the same level of depth as a person who majors in it for a bachelor’s level, but we learned the terminology. The same level of knowledge was presented for finance, accounting, economics, statistics, human resources, etc.

    The only area which appears to cover new material is business strategy, and most of that is pretty vague as every business is going to have a different strategy.

    The MBA degree appears to replace the old practice of making a potential executive work in many areas of the business before rising to the managerial ranks. So Brian, as you suspected, an MBA is supposed to replace the need to train a person in a business before giving them responsibility to run it.

    The knowledge gained is not useless, a manager should have a basic grasp of the job functions and jargon of employees. However, an MBA graduate should not be assumed to be an expert in any area of business. MBA’s are generalists who has been exposed to a variety of fields without really mastering any of them.

    I’ve enjoyed the program, but I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of a lot of fields. Which, I have to confess, some of my co-students don’t seem to realize. For example, they think that a single course in micro-economics makes them qualified to common on, say, minimum wage effects, without any understanding of the historical, societal, or employer/employee relationship reasons for minimum wage laws.

  15. CalGeorge says

    This stuff has been going on for years. From 2001 N.Y. Times article:

    May 30, 2001
    Citing Differences, Director of a Smithsonian Museum Resigns
    Robert Fri, the director of the National Museum of Natural History, unexpectedly announced his resignation today, citing his disagreement with the way the Smithsonian Institution was reorganizing his museum.

    Senior officials at the museum said that under the reorganization plan, Mr. Fri would have retained responsibility for exhibitions and educational and outreach programs but would have lost control of the scientific staff of the museum, who will report instead to J. Dennis O’Connor, the under secretary for science.


    Mr. Fri’s resignation coincides with criticism within the Smithsonian of Mr. Small’s style of management and making decisions. His decision to close the Smithsonian’s renowned wildlife conservation center in Virginia was strongly opposed by scientists outside the Smithsonian and key lawmakers, and he backed down.

    Last week, a group of curators and scholars at the Museum of American History accused Mr. Small of jeopardizing the integrity of the institution and breaching standard museum practices because of agreements reached with multimillion-dollar donors. And in the last few weeks, some employees have stuck green stickers with the words ”dump small” in elevators, bulletin boards and even on their own jacket lapels.


  16. Richard Clayton says

    I’ve noticed the “mixed signals” too, and I’d always assumed they were BECAUSE of partisan battling for control. If you’re employed at a government-funded public works project, under a wingnut director appointed by a Presidential administration packed with fundamentalists and openly hostile to science, you probably need to watch your step very carefully. I’d assumed the switchbacks and arbitrary position changes were simply examples of the internal conflicts spilling over into the public world.

  17. Dark Matter says

    There is a “Mammal Family Reunion” exhibit in the NMNH:

    If this nonsense keeps up I wonder how long it will take
    for the exhibit to be taken down…..soon enough there will
    be a public relations campaign for “privatization” to get the
    Smithsonian into the hands of extremist apparachiks.

    Would anybody care if the scientific treasures of the NMNH
    quietly started to “disappear” if this happened?


    About the term “baraminologist”…This is as good as a time
    as any to remind everybody to

    *stop using the language of the opposition*

    This is more important than most people realize and is a major
    step in getting people to change how they think about things
    and gaining public acceptance…Just stop using psueudoscientific jargon that favors their arguments. Call them “creationologists” instead…

  18. JamesR says

    You can read more about this malfeasance here:

    Smithsonian Head’s Expenses ‘Lavish,’ Audit Says
    Board Calls Small’s Charges ‘Reasonable’

    By James V. Grimaldi
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 25, 2007; Page A01

    Lawrence M. Small, the top official at the Smithsonian Institution, accumulated nearly $90,000 in unauthorized expenses from 2000 to 2005, including charges for chartered jet travel, his wife’s trip to Cambodia, hotel rooms, luxury car service, catered staff meals and expensive gifts, according to confidential findings by the Smithsonian inspector general.

    “Many transactions were not properly documented or were not in accordance with Smithsonian policies,” acting Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan wrote on Jan. 16 to the Smithsonian Board of Regents Audit and Review Committee. “Some transactions might be considered lavish or extravagant.”

    I never knew that we as txpayers were making these administrators wealthy. That sure has to stop.

  19. Leon says

    Sadly, this isn’t the only time the Smithsonian has used non-science… Their National Air and Space Museum article on Apollo 11 ( wrongly states that the heat of reentry is caused by atmospheric friction. It’s a common and understandable misconception, but the heat is generated by the enormous compression of air in front of a body entering the atmosphere at thousands of miles/hour. Phil Plait talks about this one. If that heat was being generated by friction, it would grind away the tiles of the Space Shuttle (and possibly the glass on the windows).

    So some months ago, I wrote to them explaining the error, and they responded that they asked their curator of antiquities(!), and he assured them the heat is indeed caused by friction. I’m sure their curator of antiquities is a knowledgeable person in his field, but is he really someone they should take as their final word on a point of physics?