The Smithsonian, Ralph Lauren and a Lesson in Philanthropy

This past weekend, I traveled to Washington, DC for a family event. We had a half-day free before we flew back to Boston, and decided to do some sightseeing along the National Mall. At my daughter’s request, we went to the National Museum of American History. I explained in the car ride downtown that the Smithsonian Museums were all free, in part due to government support because of their role as a repository of our nation’s historical and cultural treasures. Given what I do, I also went into a detailed explanation about the role of private philanthropy – from “Friends” groups to individual, foundation, and corporate sponsorships – in subsidizing the insufficient (and some might argue inadequate) government funding for the exhibition, interpretation, and conservation of our nation’s cultural treasures. (My family is used to these monologues).

The Smithsonian was founded through the bequest of a British scientist who died in 1829. His will stipulated that, should his nephew and heir die without heirs, his estate would go to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” In 1836, Congress accepted the gift, then the equivalent of $515,169, and established the Smithsonian in 1846. The total number of objects in the collection is estimated at nearly 155 million, and its museums hosted nearly 29 million visitors in 2018. Yet its federal funding is only 62% of its annual $1 billion budget. (source si.edu)

On the flight down, I had just finished reading Phil Buchanan’s Giving Done Right. Walking into the Museum of American History, there could not have been a more fitting example of his central thesis: that philanthropy, however flawed and challenged, is a critical component of our nation’s social, cultural, and educational fabric. Phil writes “In the United States, giving has done more good than even many givers realize, and though many challenges remain, it has contributed to much of what makes this a great country….Giving has made a huge difference in all of our lives.”

Our first stop inside the Museum was the gallery housing the original “Star Spangled Banner.” It is one of the most treasured artifacts in the Stars and StripesSmithsonian’s collection. It owes its conservation and restoration to a generous public/private partnership, with lead gifts from the Ralph Lauren/Polo Corporation, coupled with the dozens of donors listed on the plaque on the way out of the exhibit. The Star Spangled Banner was literally playing in the background as I read the plaque that explained what that funding was able to do for this important piece of American history. Without private funding, would they only have conserved 9 of the 15 stars on the flag? Or only been able to stop 62% of the deterioration?

As we walked through the galleries displaying countless American artifacts (from native communities, immigrant neighborhoods, and every day people) that explain our complex American history, I couldn’t help but think of the archivists, historians, preservationists, and educators whose work allowed us to breeze in and out of exhibits and reinforce what my 6th and 9th graders learn in their American history classes. Private philanthropy from generous individual, corporate, and foundation donors has enabled detailed analysis, interpretation, and preservation efforts, at the Smithsonian and in thousands of institutions nationally. The public viewing those exhibits – from all parts of the country and the world, based on the voices I heard – likely wasn’t reflecting on the complexities of private foundations, donor advised funds, or charitable trusts. Yet charitable gifts are as much a part of the American legacy as the artifacts on display, and allow us to connect to our past and chart a course for our future in tremendously important ways.

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About the Author:

Gioia PeruginiGioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services. Read Gioia’s full biography.

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