Lack of focus on philanthropy in DC-area museums

I have just spent about a fabulous week in Washington DC celebrating my nephew Matt’s 13th birthday. This is a milestone birthday for any young man or woman and this trip is something I promised Matt years ago. As you know, 13 year olds do not forget such promises and neither did this uncle.

The file cabinet from the Watergate break-in

During the trip, we visited as many sites as possible, including many of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution. We saw original aircraft, a space suit used by an astronaut on a walk on the moon, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Hope Diamond, a flag which inspired the writing of the US National Anthem, the original US constitution, Bill or Rights, and Declaration of Independence, and the impressive list goes on and on. The Smithsonian Institution is rich with treasures, especially for Americans who love history. As one taxi driver told us, “Washington DC is the Jerusalem of America for Americans”.

Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities.

It always amazes me the Smithsonian Institution museums, with its vast and diverse collections, are free of charge. Some might say that our taxes pay for these institutions and, thus, Americans have paid for these institutions and they should be free to enter.

The Smithsonian relies on philanthropy and membership to survive. In fact, according to its website, the Smithsonian Institution was founded because of philanthropy. The Smithsonian Institution was established with funds from James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The collections in each museum are donated by individuals and organisations world-wide.

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Sign on a collection canister at the American Museum of Natural History

As you enter the museums of the Smithsonian Institution and enter various exhibits, you will notice donor walls and plaques recognising the generosity of individuals, corporations, and trusts and foundations. Additionally, there are opportunities to leave donations in various donation canisters. Because the gift shops and cafes are the only places where money is exchanged, there is no ask for a donation. Additionally, I was asked only once if I wanted to become a member of the Smithsonian Institution. The ask was on the final day of the trip as I purchased something in the last museum (at the exit!). I joined.

Perhaps the mission or policies of the Smithsonian Institution discourage the ask for a donation. Perhaps the leadership simply want people to absorb the history documented in these amazing museums. I was more than surprised at the lack of attention drawn to the need for philanthropy.

It is my sincere hope that people see the value of institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution and take the time to support these types of institutions philanthropically and through membership. Places like the Smithsonian do not operate on government support alone and, in fact, would not even exist if it were not for the generosity of people like James Smithsonian and the countless others who take the time to give.