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Smithsonian (Almost) Loses George Washington's Bed, Along With 10% of American History Inventory

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Historic markers have been erected from Connecticut to Georgia proudly boasting that George Washington once slept there.

But the bed Washington returned to his Mount Vernon estate hasn't been treated with quite the same care. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History lost part of it, according to an inspector general's  report.

The Smithsonian is often likened to America's attic, and a watchdog's semi-annual report indicates that several of the 19 museums in the Smithsonian system have some of the same housekeeping challenges shared by families with overstuffed closets. The report raised questions about missing items and inaccurate and incomplete inventories at the National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History and National Air and Space Museum.

In a sample of 2,216 items from the National Museum of American History's inventory, the watchdog found roughly 10 percent of the items missing.  Those missing objects included 33 "Tier 4" objects, which are defined as "national treasures or valued at greater than $1 million."

Included on the inspector general's list are "parts of George Washington's bed from his residence in Mount Vernon, which have been missing for decades," but the museum disputes that they are missing. While listed as among the National Museum of American History's collection, the bed parts are actually at Mount Vernon and were never transferred to the museum, it said.

But the report also found that the National Museum of American History is not properly cataloging its collection, and that its electronic records contain less than half of its inventory. The museum has also failed to comply with a requirement that each of its seven divisions periodically count and locate all the objects in their collection.

Melinda Machado, a spokeswoman for the National Museum of American History, said problems managing and cataloging the collection have plagued the museum from its inception.

The famed tourist destination on the National Mall opened in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology, with a collection mostly drawn from the defunct United States National Museum . Even then, there was some confusion about which items went where, and some things -- like parts of Washington's bed -- were incorrectly listed in the National Museum of American History's records, even though they never actually transferred to the museum's collection, Machado said.

Some four million visitors each year crowd into the museum to see American treasures such as the ruby slippers worn by actress Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz," Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 telephone,  a 1923 ticket booth from Yankee Stadium, cookbook author Julia Child's kitchen, and a pair of Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves.

Lack of funding has slowed the National Museum of American History in getting its inventory complete and up-to-date, Machado said.

The Smithsonian's federal appropriations -- $761.4 million in fiscal 2010 -- covers mostly salaries for more than 4,000 museum employees, she says. Roughly 30 percent of the Smithsonian's total budget came from private sources in 2009, the most recent year available, but those contributions were typically earmarked for acquiring particular objects or for sponsoring exhibits.

"It's harder to get the unrestricted monies," Machado said. "Even individuals are looking for 'how do I showcase my philanthropy'."

The Smithsonian's fundraising team is trying to persuade donors to allow some of their money to cover collection management costs, she says. The institution also has a centrally-managed Collections Care and Preservation Fund, created by Congress in 2006, which awards money to fix high-priority housekeeping issues.

The National Museum of American History received about $2 million from the fund recently to catalog 6,734 military uniforms from its Military History and Diplomacy division, which was cited as having the most problems in the inspector general's report. The model used to inventory those uniforms will be used to solve problems with other collections, such as current efforts in Medicine and Science, another problem area cited in the report.

Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums, says the Smithsonian isn't the only museum facing a collections management problem.  Only one out of three museums across the country had 80 percent or more of inventory properly cataloged, according to a 2005 report by the non-profit group Heritage Preservation.

The National Museum of American History is developing a strategic plan for the next five years and among its top priorities will be improving collection management, electronic records and online access to the collection, Machado said.

The inspector general also had concerns about Smithsonian-wide financial management.

Delays in collecting financial data cost the Smithsonian $37,000 in extra fees for a financial audit in 2010, the watchdog said. The Smithsonian's decentralized accounting, delay in hiring a new chief financial officer, lack of compliance with institutional policies, and inadequate staff training led the inspector to conclude that the vaunted U.S. museum has an "under-appreciation for the importance of financial management."

Fast Fact :  The National Museum of American History has approximately 3.2 million items in its collection. 

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