Smithsonian has almost $1 billion in outstanding maintenance, committee told

Buildings with outstanding repair needs include the Castle and the National Air and Space Museum

Cathy L. Helm, inspector general of the Smithsonian Institute, testifies before the House Administration Committee on Oversight of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Smithsonian Institution has almost $1 billion in outstanding maintenance needs across the more than 600 facilities it oversees, an issue that concerned lawmakers at Wednesday’s House Administration Committee hearing and one that the recently appointed head of the museum complex pledged to address.

Prominent Smithsonian buildings in need of deferred maintenance — maintenance and repairs that were not performed when they should have been — include the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle, the Arts and Industries Building and the National Air and Space Museum. The $937 million backlog for fiscal 2017 is an assessment of every building it oversees, according to to Cathy Helm, inspector general for the Smithsonian Institution.

Lonnie Bunch III, who was appointed as the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in June, told Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, that his top priority is making the Smithsonian accessible to educate people around the country and the world. He said his second priority is addressing the deferred maintenance backlog — “To make sure that these amazing facilities are protected and made accessible to the American people.”

Before his appointment, Bunch was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a position in which he provided strategic leadership in fundraising, collections, and academic and cultural partnerships.

The Smithsonian Institution generally uses federal dollars to pay for maintenance, but when the work needed exceeds the funds on hand, it has to put those tasks on hold, Helm said in her written testimony. She cited a 2016 inspector general report that found the institution has not reduced the backlog because it is spending less than recommended on maintenance.

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The Smithsonian has been spending around 1 percent on maintenance annually, below the 2 percent to 4 percent range recommended by the National Research Council, Helm testified. Bunch said he would work to achieve at least 2 percent, and noted that he would like to meet the 3 percent level.

“In its budget request for fiscal year 2020, the Smithsonian requested $84.5 million, about half of the lowest estimate needed,” Helm said in her written testimony. “Given the disparity, the deferred work will continue to grow.”

The Smithsonian Institution is making some progress on that backlog. Currently, the National Air and Space Museum is undergoing a $650 million renovation, of which more than $250 million is going to deferred maintenance.

Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, asked Bunch if private contributions could help pay for the backlog. He responded that many of those funds are committed to specific endeavors, such as educational programs.

“We will always look at wherever we can to take resources and put it towards deferred maintenance or other issues, but, as you know, deferred maintenance isn't sexy,” Bunch said. “So many of the donors are not interested in putting their money in that regard.”

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 18: Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, testifies before the House Administration Committee on “Oversight of the Smithsonian Institute” in Washington on Wednesday September 18, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
 Lonnie Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, testifies before the House Administration Committee on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

There was a discussion of adding more museums to the Smithsonian. A bill introduced by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney — who was in attendance — has more than 290 cosponsors and would establish a women’s history museum. The New York Democrat’s bill could reach the House floor soon.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, Republican of Georgia, cautioned that the backlog needs to be taken care of before exploring new projects.

“Through the discussions of potential new museums, which I’m very excited about, I think it’s important that we kind of get the house clean before we look at expanding anymore,” Loudermilk said. An expansion, he said, could create more of a backlog.

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