Get our free newsletter
In a gift shop at the National Air and Space Museum, enameled soft-drink ads from the good old days are printed on steel. “Your Thirst Takes Wings,” coos a plaque emblazoned with a DC-3. List price—$22. The signs (and matching refrigerator magnets) recall a simpler time, when leather- clad flyers chugged the world’s most popular soft drink. The items are a product of the Coca-Cola Co., which last year donated over half-a-million dollars to the Smithsonian and is described in the museum’s annual report as a “global corporate citizen.”
Across the Mall, the Museum of American History runs its fashionable Palm Court ice-cream parlor. A souvenir brochure recounts the history of ice cream—“made possible,” it reads, “by the generosity of the Good Humor Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin.” A nearby stand sells cappuccino and brownies, having opened this year under the green-and-white Starbucks logo. “People like their coffee,” explains one museum spokesperson. The company negotiated a fee-split concession for the privilege of mounting its escutcheon in our national museum.
Corporate America is retailing more at the Smithsonian these days than just coffee and souvenirs, however. Chrysler vamps the Dodge Caravan on the souvenir floor plan of Air and Space. General Motors donates a Chevy Corsica to American History, while a nearby monitor declaims, “The automotive industry works to provide customers the highest-quality car at an affordable price.” Down the corridor, a Hitachi high-definition TV displays footage of Versailles backed by an exploding operatic score, while Hewlett-Packard hawks software in an exhibit dedicated to the finer mysteries of marketing. The quaint dioramas and displays of yore are fast disappearing from the Smithsonian.
To replace them, private sponsors have become deft at underwriting a nostalgic view of corporate America on the Mall. American History boasts vintage Western Union signs and a cheery training film—courtesy of the company; footage from 1928 boosts the New York Stock Exchange (donated by same); and a 1934 film highlights the efficiency of female switchboard operators—brought to you by AT&T. The artifacts, of course, are “history,” a respectable way to showcase company memorabilia just a floor below the ruby slippers of MGM legend.
Such a presence at the Smithsonian is “as much propaganda as education,” declares Michael Jacobson, founder of the Center for the Study of Commercialism, a local nonprofit that monitors the consumer world. Advertising and goodwill are both central to corporate philanthropic efforts, he explains. “Corporations like to advertise their generosity,” Jacobson says, and museums are the perfect place to show everyone—stockholders included—that the company is a civic-minded bunch acting in the public interest.
The language of museum charity supports this interpretation. Company artifacts are proffered as “gifts.” Vintage film footage is given “courtesy” of corporations. Corporate donors are dubbed “Founders,” “Sponsors,” and “Patrons”—flattering titles for companies that, though no doubt possessed of a social conscience, remain loyal to the balance sheet. Alas, even such niceties may be disappearing. The 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian next year is to be underwritten by corporate “partners”—not “sponsors”—in exchange for using Smithsonian artifacts in their advertising, a bargain to which Intel and the Discover Card have already agreed.
But you don’t need to wait until next year to see evidence of corporate partnerships on the Mall. Since 1988, for example, millions of visitors at American History have seen “A Material World: What Things Are Made of and Why”—an exhibit, say display banners, “made possible” by the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. “Made possible” means that DuPont furnished almost the entire $1-million-plus budget—including many of the artifacts. The exhibit’s only sponsor of note, America’s chemical giant exerts an unmistakable presence throughout.
“A Material World” ‘s premise—that the development of synthetic fibers has revolutionized the way we live—is fine. But soon the border between history and advocacy grows thin. Dacron, Teflon, Mylar, Kevlar, and Zytel—trademarks pioneered and developed by DuPont—pop up repeatedly in the text. Half the displays go to lengths to impress on us the unqualified virtue of synthetic polymers, a cornerstone in The World According to DuPont. The exhibit invites viewers to think about the people who consume electric toothbrushes and Maytag washers—not, of course, those who produce them, a subject that would raise tough questions for a corporate-funded venture. Handsomely decked out in bright colors and commercial totems, “A Material World” is an endorsement of happy consumerism.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “Science in American Life” (underwritten by the American Chemical Society) offers a thoughtful critique of material progress—despite the fact that some of the main players get some friendly officiating. DuPont, for one, was good enough to donate a portable unit for recycling chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a nice way to soften the passing admission that the company was the world’s largest producer of the ozone-depleting compounds for years. A display on Rachel Carson and the ravages of products like DDT doesn’t bring up the name of longtime pesticide producer DuPont—like Coca-Cola, another participant in the Smithsonian’s Corporate Membership Program.
But “Science in American Life” has drawn fire from other quarters. The American Physical Society and the sponsoring American Chemical Society protested what they considered signs of an anti-science bias. The Smithsonian eventually consented to make minor content changes, says Tensia Alvirez, American History director of public affairs, who stressed the “mainstream” nature of an exhibit that was five years in the planning. As for glossing over corporate misdeeds, says Alvirez, “it serves no purpose for an organization that needs funds…to develop an animus” with potential donors. A spokesperson for the American Chemical Society, which is comprised of individual—not corporate—members, said that the organization, after examining visitor survey results, will have further input into what it still considers an “evolving” exhibit.
So what’s the rub? With only 77 percent of its budget funded by federal money, the museum’s big exhibits need private sponsorship. Corporate involvement is “critical to the continuity of all kinds of public institutions,” says Smithsonian director of development Marie Mattson. Though corporate donations have climbed during the past decade, she says, corporate giving as a percentage of Smithsonian revenue (16 percent so far this year) is down, owing to fiscal restraint in the private sector. She endorses a strong corporate presence nonetheless, saying that “it’s the only way we’ll be able to do what we do now,” an allusion to looming federal cutbacks.
The corporate gifts, of course, are tax-deductible. And the displayed names and logos give firms like AT&T, American Express, and Disney (each of which made cash contributions exceeding $50,000 to the Smithsonian last year) a prominent advertising platform on the Mall. In some exhibits, one might well ask who’s doing the “giving”—the corporation that bestows the gift, or the museum that offers space for favorable name recognition in sites that attract millions of people annually. Philanthropy, like much else, is in the eye of the beholder.
Smithsonian officials describe safeguards to maintain exhibit integrity. Sponsors, they point out, must sign an agreement not to interfere with editorial content once they approve a project concept. And that doesn’t mean that corporations, naturally anxious to avoid controversy, won’t support an honest airing of issues, says Mattson. “Smart corporate contributors don’t want to [maintain exhibit control],” she says, because “it cheapens the gift.” If anyone perceived them as “stacking the deck,” she adds, the public outcry would be embarrassing to everyone. “They support these shows because the Smithsonian is doing it”—and not the other way around.
While the Center for the Study of Commercialism’s Jacobson concedes that such an editorial check has some credibility—adding that the Smithsonian is less garish than many other museums—ultimately, he says, “it’s not an effective restraint. Everyone who’s ever gotten a dime from industry knows that there are strings attached. And if the sponsor doesn’t like [the show], you won’t get another dime.” Since patrons are usually courted as long-term funding sources, such a loss of revenue would be harshly felt in the nonprofit sector. Efforts to please future sponsors likely result in self-censorship.
Outside funding needn’t come from corporations, however. “We’re turning more and more of our emphasis to private individuals,” says Mattson. And for a simple reason—“they give a lot more.” “Institutions need to look at different people,” Jacobson agrees, although he cautions that even individuals can have an editorial stake. An exhibit on the wonders of the computer age underwritten by someone like Bill Gates, he muses, might not find any room to discuss the Unabomber. And even federal money—as the Enola Gay exhibit demonstrated—has political strings attached.
There may be ways to minimize corporate kibitzing nonetheless. “Ocean Planet” at Natural History, for example, confronts problems like overfishing and oil pollution. But its sponsors ranged from the National Science Foundation to Times Mirror and the Discovery Channel, a pluralistic group of benefactors. For Jacobson’s money, the Smithsonian should be looking at other alternatives: Avoid blockbuster exhibits that need big funding; look for more foundation money; consider closing the museums for a week every year to bring home the effect of budget cutbacks. When I mention the possibility of charging admission, he reluctantly agrees that it would at least be worth studying.
Though the best bargain in Washington, a trip to the Smithsonian still comes with hidden costs. While DuPont, General Motors, and IBM should be recognized as important forces in American culture, none is as beneficent as the Smithsonian suggests. When a lavish exhibit like American History’s “Information Age”—funded by millions from a consortium of communication giants—says little about the costs of modern mechanization save for a cute clip from Chaplin’s Modern Times, it’s time to wonder who’s running Editorial. Look around the next time you’re on the first floor of American History. More ink is spilled on the history of the synthetic polymer industry than on the venerable American tradition of trustbusting—a sign, if anything is, of who’s been giving to the arts lately.