The Coalition Column

News Briefs, March 2004

Bruce Craig, March 2004

Smithsonian Secretary Gets Probation

As regular readers of this column may recall, Lawrence Small, the embattled secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, got himself into trouble with federal authorities in November 2000 when it was discovered that he had illegally purchased art objects that included feathers from several protected species. After years of investigation, federal officials determined that Small's personal collection that he had purchased in 1998 did indeed include Amazonian tribal art objects made with the feathers of protected species.

Rather than sentence Small to a jail term of six months and a $15,000 fine (the maximum sentence for a Class B misdemeanor violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act), on January 23, 2004, a federal judge in Raleigh, North Carolina, sentenced the secretary to two years' probation and 100 hours of community service for his role in the illegal purchase. As part of the plea bargain, Small was ordered to submit letters of apology and explanation in five of the nation's most prestigious newspapers and publications, including National Geographic magazine. The plea agreement did not include a requirement that the apology appear in Smithsonian magazine—the publication that reaches the largest number of Smithsonian supporters and donors—or that the apology be posted on the Smithsonian web site. Though he accepted the plea, Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle reportedly was "uneasy" with several points in the agreement. According to government prosecutors, Small was "not an individual that did not have resources . . . at his disposal" and that he could have ensured that he was not violating the law. In addition to the nearly 200 violations associated with the one large collection that Small purchased in 1998 from an anthropologist, government prosecutors noted that Small had separately and personally imported 13 items illegally, suggesting that the secretary had, on his own, illegally imported items prior to the largest acquisition in 1988. In his decision, the judge found that Small was not an uninformed buyer, and that at the time of purchase he had a legal obligation to make sure that the purchase was proper. Though Small stated that he had consulted with a lawyer about the acquisition of the collection, there apparently "was no discussion with the lawyer about the legality." Small has consistently maintained that he had no knowledge that the collection he purchased contained protected species.

The Board of Regents, the body that hired Small and also has the authority to fire him, staunchly stood behind the secretary. In a statement issued by the executive committee of the board of regents, the board does not expect the case to affect Small's status as head of the Smithsonian. Since the secretary "cooperated fully with the investigation," since he "voluntarily surrendered his entire feather-work collection to the government," and because his actions do not involve "criminal intent . . . this matter has not impaired, is not now impairing, and will not hereafter impair the secretary's ability to continue serving the Smithsonian Institution in the excellent manner he which he has performed over the past four years."

Smithsonian History Museum Exhibition to Focus on Military History

On January 22, 2004, officials of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH) announced plans to open a $19 million permanent exhibit called "The Price of Freedom" by Veterans Day 2004 (November 11). The 18,200-square-foot exhibit will explore the topic of the nation's military history, beginning with the French and Indian War in the 1750s and culminating with the conflict in Afghanistan and the Iraq war. The exhibition will use some 700 military-related artifacts (including a military jeep and a helicopter) that will help tell the story of how Americans fought to establish the nation's independence, determined the nation's borders, shaped its values, and defined its role in world affairs. Interactive stations, video presentations, and first-person accounts will be integrated into the interpretive narrative that, according to museum officials, will go beyond a mere survey of battles but instead will "examine wars as both social and military events." To that end, the exhibition will analyze the relationship between wars and American political leadership, social values, technological innovation, and personal sacrifice. According to NMAH director Brent Glass, the exhibition's goal is to "give visitors a comprehensive and memorable overview of America's military experience and the central role it has played in our national life." The exhibit will serve as the anchor for a newly renovated Military History Hall and is the first phase of a three-pronged renovation of the museum. The exhibit will be funded largely from an $80 million gift to the museum by businessman Kenneth Behring.

—BC