Smithsonian considers London outpost in Olympic Park

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

image copyrightKevin Allen/London Legacy Development Corp
image captionThe proposed Olympicopolis site is in front of the London Aquatics Centre and a few hundred yards from the former Olympic Stadium

The world's largest museum and research institution could be heading to London as part of a multi-million dollar refit of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The Smithsonian in Washington, DC, has been asked to open an exhibition space on the 4.5 acre site showing treasures from its 19 museums and art galleries.

Its 137 million artefacts include some iconic objects, like Dorothy's ruby red slippers in the Wizard of Oz.

The focus in London would be America's history and contributions to science.

John McCarter, chairman of the Board of Regents, the Smithsonian's governing body, revealed as much, although he says no details have been finalised.

"This is an opportunity for the Smithsonian to move into a global context and to tell America's story," he says.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Hope Diamond is part of the Smithsonian's permanant collection

The new London cultural centre will be named Olympicopolis and $50m (£33m) in UK funding has so far been secured to build the facility. Annual operating costs are expected to run between $5m and $7m but would be funded by sales, private donations and admission to temporary exhibits.

The Smithsonian would join several major British institutions planning outposts at the Olympic Park, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, University of the Arts London and the Sadler's Wells ballet company. The University College of London is also planning to open a new campus on the site.

"These are wonderful institutions, and we want to be a positive addition to them," says Mr McCarter. "We have objects that are unique to the Smithsonian and to the United States that can add to and enhance the cultural tourism and scholarly capability of London. We do this with great respect."

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionThe Smithsonian includes 19 museums, nine research institutes and a zoo. Its headquarters are located on the mall in Washington DC.

And with 95% of the Smithsonian's holdings in storage, he said there would be plenty of objects to choose from.

As well as the slippers, some of its iconic objects include the legendary Hope Diamond, President Lincoln's top hat, the star-spangled banner that inspired the national anthem, and the Apollo lunar landing module.

If the development goes ahead, it will be the first time in the Smithsonian's 168-year history that it has opened a long-term exhibition venue outside of the US. It also signals the continuing quest for global reach in the 21st Century. This month the Freer and Sackler galleries of Asian art became the first Smithsonian museum to digitise its entire collection

Being in London "gives us the equivalent in a physical facility to enable us to share with people what they love, the real stuff. With all due respect to the digital world, you don't get that until you're in the physical presence of an object," says Mr McCarter.

The Smithsonian has several other major projects in the pipeline, including the African American History and Culture Museum, which is due to be completed later this year, and the Arts and Industries Building which has yet to be re-opened following extensive renovations. But Acting Secretary Al Horvath says no funds will be diverted to the London venture and no US taxpayer money would be spent on it either.

"Private support has been indentified in London to enable us to move into the space, and once the space is open it becomes our responsibility to support it through the revenues generated there," he says.

"We will not be asking for any federal funding and one of the key aspects of our due diligence has been to ensure that this will not be a drain on existing Smithsonian resources."

Discussions are still being held over the terms and conditions of the partnership. An agreement could be reached within the next few months.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe red slippers from the Wizard of Oz are on view at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History in DC

In a statement, Mayor of London Boris Johnson welcomed the Smithsonian's decision to open formal talks. He said it would be a massive coup to attract the institution to east London.

If the move does go ahead it could also represent a return of the American institution to its British roots. The Smithsonian was founded by a British chemist, James Smithson, the illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland.

When he died in 1829 a clause in his will bequeathed his fortune to the United States to create in Washington "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

James Smithson had never visited the US, but in 1904 Alexander Graham Bell, a regent of the Smithsonian, brought his remains to Washington where they were re-interred at the institution that bears his name.

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