WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution, which runs the largest museum complex in the world, is asking Congress for an $82 million budget increase this year, which includes the start of a massive renovation of the National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall.
But the Republican chairman of a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee appeared to balk at the increase.
“(The Smithsonian’s) request is one of the most ambitious as measured on a percentage basis,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the panel’s interior, environment and related agencies subcommittee, which held a hearing Wednesday on the museum’s budget.
The Smithsonian’s proposed $922.2 million budget request for fiscal 2017 would be $82 million more than the level approved by Congress for fiscal 2016.
Many of the Smithsonian’s museums have been operating on the same building systems and equipment since they opened, said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.
She defended a $50 million increase in the National Air and Space Museum’s budget needed in part to begin replacing the building’s deteriorating façade. The Air and Space museum hosted 6.9 million visitors in 2015, making it one of the most-visited museums in the world, according to David Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian.
Congress already has spent $270 million for the construction of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open Sept. 24. Air and Space building repairs would total nearly $600 million over five years, more than it cost to build the African American museum.
The $600 million would go toward updated mechanical systems in Air and Space’s building, contribute to solving an “unanticipated problem” with the building’s outside stone panels that need replacement and aid in offsite moving and storage of items in the museum’s collection, Skorton said.
“It will also be necessary, from my perspective, to keep as much of the museum open during the revitalization as possible, given the enormous appetite the American public has to visit the museum and gain from its collections,” he told the subcommittee.
The cost to construct a new Air and Space Museum building would be about $2 billion, Skorton told lawmakers.
If the current budget proposal is approved, Calvert said, the Smithsonian’s future budgets would be affected.
“There is both increasing demand for, and shrinking supply of, federal dollars to address many legitimate priorities,” Calvert said.
“Every member of this committee would like to support a 10 percent increase in funding for the Smithsonian, but given the incredible demands across this bill, it’s probably not realistic,” he said.
Calvert added: “We’ll find out how we’re going to do this … but I know it has to be done. It’s your most visited museum and it’s certainly a national treasure.”