Smithsonian scrambles to regain its footing

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WASHINGTON -- As the Smithsonian’s museum directors filed into a conference room at the organization’s headquarters here Wednesday for their monthly meeting, Cristián Samper had some difficulty getting in the door. That’s because so many people stopped him in the hallway to shake his hand and wish him luck. “I feel like I’m on a receiving line,” he said.

In a way, he was. Just two days before, Mr. Samper, 41, had been catapulted from director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to acting secretary of the entire Smithsonian Institution. He was the emergency replacement for Lawrence M. Small, 65, who resigned after a tumultuous seven-year tenure that concluded with an internal audit showing that the museum complex had paid for his extravagant personal expenses.

In addition, just before Mr. Small resigned, an external review committee identified some major problems facing the Smithsonian, concluding: “The Smithsonian’s art institutions have reached a critical point. Drastically underfunded, they are unable to lead the nation during a time when their creativity and high visibility give them vast potential to affect the lives of our citizens.”

As a result, over the next few months the Smithsonian will be grappling with fundamental questions far beyond just issues of governance and oversight. The institution will also consider how to tackle buildings in dire need of repair, questionable collections at some of its art museums, a lack of money that makes it difficult to compete and the need to improve fund-raising strategies.

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