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Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2002/ 2 Adar, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Museum green -- the red, the black and the blue -- THE donor giveth and the donor taketh away. That's the message Catherine B. Reynolds sent to the Smithsonian Institution (and to the rest of us).

If anyone thought that her $38 million gift to the National Museum of History was actually a gift, arriving with no strings attached, she has cleared up the misunderstanding. The strings on her gift, knotted and gnarled, inevitably created an ugly web of "she says, they say.'' She blames the bureaucrats and the bureaucrats blame her. Compromise was gossamer that quickly evaporated when anyone got near it.

Reynolds picked up her millions, as millionaires are wont to do, and said a not-so-fond farewell to the planned exhibition called, ironically (or maybe not so ironically), " The Spirit of America.'' She wanted to inspire children with Horatio Alger biographies of Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. A nice sentiment, but the curators had other, more elevated ideas. A museum is meant to be more seriously educational, emphasizing movements and institutions and the people in them who make a historical difference, not the friends and neighbors of a wealthy patron.

The money will be missed, but good riddance to heavy-handed interference. This tawdry incident shouldn't discourage future benefactors, but it should send a message to those who demand control over how the money is spent, like a wealthy aunt who sends a birthday check and demands to choose the style and color of the sweater or dress bought with the money. A gift is not a gift unless it's a gift.

As the Smithsonian buildings grow older, upkeep becomes ever more expensive. There's not a lot of ego gratification in contributing money to pay for repairing the plumbing and replacing peeling paint. It's a rare millionaire who doesn't want to contribute more than a signature on a check.

While all this sounds quite postmodern in its controversial nature, it actually recalls controversies at the beginning of the establishment of museums in this country, which have always been geared more to the marketplace than the museums of Europe. The governments of France and England inherited the possessions of royal families who had filled their palaces with objects of art. American museums were dependent on rich benefactors who celebrated the nation by celebrating themselves.

"Born barely two centuries ago, the modern museum soon evolved into an institution devoted to charting the course of progress -- in science and technology, art, national history and other realms,'' reports the Wilson Quarterly in an examination of the American museum movement. Since then there have been lots of conflicts over money and motive.

In fact, the first major museum in this country wasn't national, but private, one that received the support of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. In 1784, Charles Wilson Peale, a patriot, artist, scientist and entrepreneur, sold tickets for 25 cents to his museum in Philadelphia, where he tried to blend moral and educational purposes with perverse curiosity. Along with a serious collection of animals and fish, he exhibited the trigger finger of an executed murderer along with a five-legged cow with two tails. The eclectic formula ultimately failed and the museum finally closed after 60 years.

Subsequently, many of our museums were established by the robber barons who had made vast fortunes in oil, steel, banking and railroads, and who yearned to earn the respectability that had eluded them in their financial shenanigans. They understood, as Washington does, that most people will trot behind the rich like dogs chasing a meat wagon.

Museums have nearly always suffered money frustrations, no matter who subsidizes them, but they've never been so financially needy as they are today, expanding their funding base with shops, cafes, reproductions of kitsch as well as fine art -- anything to stay afloat. Blockbuster art shows, from King Tut to Vincent Van Gogh, bring in increasing numbers of paying customers, but these exhibits force cutbacks of the displays of art and technology that are more difficult for the public to understand.

"Time marches on,'' as the old newsreels told us in stentorian voice, and the museums march with it. Still, we have to be wary of conflicts of interest between what the public needs to know, appreciate, conserve and celebrate -- and the various itches of those who pay for tutoring the public sensibility. As scholarship becomes more specialized, museums suffer from the conflicts of competing turfs. As exhibits reach out to broader segments of the population, they balance precariously between the competing demands of education and infotainment.

Lawrence Small, director of the Smithsonian, was naturally disappointed when Mrs. Reynolds withdrew her $38 million gift. "Conceptualizing ... and executing first-class museum exhibits is always extremely challenging,'' he said. And sometimes very expensive.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS