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Sullying The Field of History: The Indulgences Of Smithsonian Secretary Small

March 19, 2007

A Washington Post article today exposed the Smithsonian’s chief official, Secretary Lawrence M. Small, as part of the leisure class in a field populated with spendthrift not-for-profits and low-paid humanities professionals. Hired in 1999 “to bring a new level of financial savvy and managerial panache” to the institution, according to a September 1999 New York Times article, Small brought rather his fondness for superfluity and opulence to the Smithsonian.

Small’s tastes should come as no surprise, really, considering his background: former banker, former head of Fannie Mae, and eighteenth-century-type virtuosity (he loves the flamenco guitar and Spanish culture). His old standard of living was high. I will avoid any blatantly obvious jokes on the paradox between his name and live-large standards.

Unfortunately, however, Small’s present-day excesses also reflect poorly on the history profession. This is why his name and this scandal are being commented upon here. Like it or not, any high-profile institution that holds “old stuff” in the trust of its citizens is considered a part of the history octopus.

With that, here are some excerpts from today’s Post article by James V. Grimaldi:

– “Internal Smithsonian documents offer a glimpse into what one senator called the ‘Dom Perignon’ lifestyle of the taxpayer-supported institution’s chief official, who turned in a $15,000 receipt for the replacement of French doors at his home and spent $48,000 for two chairs, a conference table and upholstery for his office suite.”
– “Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small’s spending has been the subject of intense public scrutiny after The Washington Post published details last month from a confidential inspector general’s report delving into his $2 million in housing and office expenses over the past six years. Spreadsheets and invoices obtained by The Post include previously unreleased details on expenses deemed by the Smithsonian Board of Regents to be authorized and ‘reasonable’ under the terms of Small’s employment agreement.”
– “Small spent nearly $160,000 on the redecoration of his offices in the institution’s main building on the Mall shortly after he took the helm of the world’s largest museum system in 2000. The expenses include $4,000 for two chairs from the English furniture-maker George Smith, $13,000 for a custom-built conference table and $31,000 for Berkeley stripe upholstery.”
– “Small has also received $1.15 million in housing allowances over a six-year period in return for agreeing to use his 6,500-square-foot home in Woodley Park for Smithsonian functions. To justify those expenses, Small has submitted receipts for $152,000 in utility bills, $273,000 in housekeeping services and $203,000 in maintenance charges, including $2,535 to clean a chandelier. The home-repair invoices show $12,000 for upkeep and service on his backyard swimming pool, including $4,000 to replace the lap pool’s natural gas heater and pump.”
– “The office expenses were permitted under Smithsonian policies and procedures, and the housing allowance was part of Small’s employment agreement. The $160,000 in office renovations are part of $846,000 in total office expenses Small filed between 2000 and 2005. About $90,000 was found by the institution’s inspector general to be unauthorized, including charter jet travel and transactions that ‘might be considered lavish or extravagant,’ The Post reported last month. In addition to the $90,000, about $28,000 in expenses had insufficient or no supporting documents. These were variously labeled as ‘reimbursement,’ ‘one-time vendor’ and ‘Smithsonian petty cash,’ documents show.”
– “Small, whose total compensation will top $915,000 this year, said in a statement that he is declining to comment while an ongoing Senate Finance Committee investigation looks at his expenses.”
– “The controversy over Small’s spending comes amid recent reports describing a broad decline in the Smithsonian’s physical plant and institution-wide austerity measures ordered in recent years. The Smithsonian, for example, sent out an e-mail a year ago urging employees to save energy: ‘Use task lighting instead of general lighting whenever possible. Turn off decorative or accent lighting.'”
– But “Small, in a speech at the National Press Club shortly after taking over as secretary, promised to find either public or private money to repair ‘shabby’ Smithsonian buildings, including the Arts and Industries Building, the institution’s second-oldest building. ‘All of the physical facilities, the physical premises of the Smithsonian, should shine,’ Small said in April 2000.”

Do check out the rest of the piece. A significant portion of it deals with the investigation into Small’s “expenses.”


This of course disgusts me. But why – beyond the obvious facts that I could live for almost a year on his $28,000 petty cash expenses, for two years on his “unauthorized” $90,000 in expenditures, and for 20 years or so on his yearly salary (sans taxes)? Because it’s a position of public trust, publicly funded, and in the field of history. I now understand why Supreme Court and other federal justices are seeking more pay. They had no idea the museum life was so lucrative! [Note: Chief Justice John Roberts is on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, and has a degree in history.]

At the time of Small’s hiring, the New York Times wrote that his “still undetermined salary will obviously be less than that at Fannie Mae.” Maybe it was, but from my vantage point clearly not by much. Small was hired in 1999 by former President Bill Clinton. There’s a legacy for you – one confirming that neither political party has a stranglehold on doing good for field of history.

Mr. Small, you have now sullied not just your own name, but also the field of history. If I may speak on behalf of all those who struggle to maintain the credibility of the history profession – in little museums and classrooms, in books and blogs, underpaid and underappreciated across the country – thank you very much. – TL


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  1. Anonymous permalink

    Underpaid and underappreciated across much of the country, indeed. An old friend of mine (Museum Studies) worked at the Smithsonian under Small. Talk about a dream job in Museum Studies – she only had to beat out several hundred other applicants for the position…..which she ultimately, and much to her regret, had to leave because the pay was so abominable. As I recall, she didn't even have health insurance for most of her time there.

    I'm sure I should say something articulate and measured, befitting a scholar, but all I can come up with is, “Man, what a dick.”


  2. Anonymous permalink

    Alexis, for those of us who continue to work at the Smithsonian – despite the intense financial struggle you so aptly described – I second your comment. Small and the Board of Regents are a disgrace to the Institution, and an insult to its staff.


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