Blue Light Special at the Smithsonian
Published on Saturday, February 17, 2001
Blue Light Special at the Smithsonian
by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
Lawrence Small has a great corporate pedigree.

For 27 years, Small was a top executive with Citicorp/Citibank. In 1991, he became president of Fannie Mae, the bully on the housing finance market.

Last year, he became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He didn't bother resigning from the many corporate boards on which he sits today, including The Chubb Corp., Marriott International, Fannie Mae and Citicorp/Citibank.

He's chairman of the financial advisory committee of TransResources International, the parent company of Haifa Chemical, an Israeli firm.

We ran into Small this week at the Museum of American History. He had turned over the place to Kmart. Kmart and the Smithsonian had become "partners" in bringing to the public a traveling mobile museum featuring a exhibition titled "Wade in the Water: African-American Sacred Music Traditions 1871-2001."

The mobile museum is a 48-foot, double expandable trailer, with giant red Kmart signs emblazoned on each side. The trailer will travel to Kmart stores, schools and elsewhere around the nation.

At the auditorium, Small said that he was "delighted to work with Kmart on this important project" and thanked the retailing giant for its "generous donation."

Brent Willis, Kmart's "chief marketing officer" made some syrupy statement about the benefits of diversity.

We wanted to test Willis' corporate rhetoric against the reality at Kmart.

So we asked Valerie Stokes, Kmart's vice president for human resources, and the company's highest ranking African-American, how many of the company's 300,000 employees were African American. Stokes said she didn't know. What about a ballpark number? Couldn't tell you. Are any of Kmart's more than 2,100 stores unionized? No. Have there been attempts to unionize? Couldn't tell you.

We asked Small how much money Kmart kicked in to fund the project. "Don't know, you'll have to ask Kmart," Small said. We asked the numerous Kmart spokespeople at the event. Don't know. Can't tell you.

We asked Small why he was turning over the Smithsonian to Kmart, a company with a poor reputation in America, in a corporate public relations effort to burnish its image?

"It's not being used for corporate public relations," Small said.

Then, in the very next breath, he asked, "Why shouldn't they get something out of it? They put up the money for it."

Well, we wanted to know, is it okay for the Smithsonian, which gets two-thirds of its budget from the federal taxpayers, to partner with major American corporations?

At this point, David Umansky, the Smithsonian's director of communications, cuts in.

"I want you to understand something," Umansky says. "The Smithsonian is not a government institution. Write this down. Legislation was passed establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States -- not the United States government -- but the United States. It is not a part of the executive branch, it is not a part of the legislative branch, it is not a part of the judiciary. It is a separate entity."

Got that kids? The Smithsonian gets hundreds of millions of dollars from you and me, and they are before Congress begging for more taxpayer money -- and it is not a part of the government.

Umansky wants to know: "Why are you so suspicious?"

Well, there should be a stark dividing line between public and private institutions in America.

You seem to be the only person in America who believes that, he says.

That would come as a surprise to our readers. We have gotten hundreds of responses from readers who are unhappy with corporate control of public institutions, including when we wrote a couple of years ago about the oil companies taking over a part of the Smithsonian for their exhibit on the Alaska oil pipeline.

You can get hundreds of people upset about the sunrise, Umansky counters.

So, any public institution should be allowed to take private corporate money?

If it's used properly, absolutely, Umansky says. For the Smithsonian, there is no problem.

It's been 20 minutes now, and we still haven't gotten an answer to how much Kmart spent for this little public relations stunt. Umansky doesn't like the persistence. "Why are you being such an asshole?" he asks.

Finally, Umansky gets us an answer on the funding -- Kmart put up $2 million in cash and in kind -- about $500,000 in cash.

At a press conference at the National Press Club last year, Small was asked about undue corporate influence over the operations of the Smithsonian.

"There is a difference between providing the funding and having an endorsement or having a commercial relationship with the museum," he said. "So, if it's philanthropy, I don't think there's any problem with it."

In this instance, and in many others, the Smithsonian has crossed the line. By allowing the Kmart logo and the Smithsonian logo to be emblazoned all over the press releases, press kits and trailer last week, by giving Kmart's "chief marketing officer" a stage to spout empty corporate platitudes, the Smithsonian Institution was putting its seal of approval on the company.

Every major new exhibit at the Smithsonian over the past couple of years has been funded by a major American corporation or industry -- the Alaska Pipeline exhibit funded by the oil companies, the insect zoo funded by Orkin, and on down the line. The place has become a museum of American corporations.

Earlier this year, an exhibit on the American Presidency, sponsored by Cisco Systems and Chevy Chase Bank, among others, was deemed so important that it had to bump an exhibit on the work of the late folk singer and anti-corporate rabble rouser Woody Guthrie. The Guthrie exhibit was scheduled to run through the spring, but got pulled for the one about the corporate presidency.

Through Small and his predecessors, the corporate state has overtaken the Smithsonian. Congress should take it back for the people.

Congress should demand that as a condition of forking over hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars every year, the Smithsonian should kick the corporations out.

It's time to clean house.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman