WASHINGTON — As London works to redevelop its Olympic park from 2012 with a new cultural center, it could eventually include an import from the United States. The Smithsonian Institution is working to establish its first international museum outpost in Britain.
London’s mayor and developers for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park site have secured $50 million in private contributions for the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex, to help anchor in a new “Olympicopolis” cultural center that would open in 2021.
A 40,000-square-foot Smithsonian gallery would feature permanent and rotating exhibits from Smithsonian sites, including the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History and National Museum of Natural History and various art galleries.
British money first established the Smithsonian in 1846. English scientist James Smithson left a $500,000 bequest to establish an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” While the Smithsonian has nearly 200 affiliate museums across the U.S. and its own 19 museums in Washington and New York, this would be the first time it has opened a museum venue beyond U.S. borders.
The Louvre, the British Museum and other major museums also have expanded globally, said John McCarter, chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.
“This is an opportunity for the Smithsonian to move into a global context in the way some of our peer institutions ... have done,” he said. “So it’s a great opportunity for us to get started and really to tell America’s story.”
London, he said, is an ideal location as a “multicultural tourist beacon of millions of people.” The new cultural center would have train access to London and the rest of Britain and Europe. Already a shopping mall near the site draws millions of visitors, McCarter said.
“It would be a massive coup to attract the Smithsonian Institution to east London,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson, who proposed the collaboration.
If the deal is finalized, the Smithsonian would join the Victoria and Albert Museum, University College London, University of the Arts London and Sadler’s Wells Theatre as partners in the new Olympicopolis. The cultural complex would be situated near London’s 2012 Olympic Stadium, swimming facility, athlete housing that is being converted to condominiums and a press center being converted to startup space for new businesses.
Museum officials said it’s too soon to say whether the exhibits might sometimes include such Smithsonian treasures as Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” the Apollo space capsule that carried astronauts to the moon, or artwork saved from the British burning of the White House. But Smithsonian leaders want to expand their reach to people who don’t know much about the most popular U.S. museums.
“We envision this as being a Smithsonian facility that really allows us to show the breadth and depth of everything that we do,” Smithsonian Acting Secretary Al Horvath said. “So it won’t be specifically focused on one topic but will allow us to run the gamut of things that we do: history, science, art, culture and the like.”
Smithsonian officials have consulted with political leaders and diplomats in Britain and the United States in pursuing the arrangement.
They assured U.S. congressional leaders that the Smithsonian will not seek federal funding to support the expansion, Horvath said.
The estimated operating cost of $5 million to $7 million annually would be supported through private fundraising, admission fees for certain programs, and retail or other offerings.
Admission to the cultural center would be free. A design competition is under way to select an architect.