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Museums and Zoos Go Ape Over Stimulus Stigma

By signing the $787 billion stimulus bill Tuesday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which draws part of its power from rooftop solar panels built by a local company, President Barack Obama highlighted his campaign to create and preserve green jobs. But the choice of locale was also a vote of confidence for a museum community badly shaken by recent actions in the U.S. Congress.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate voted to ban museums from receiving any funding in the stimulus package. Although conferees eventually resorted to House language that didn't mention museums, the final bill still excludes educational institutions with living exhibits—that is, zoos and aquariums. Adding insult to injury, the law lumps them together with "casino or other gambling establishments," golf courses, and swimming pools as outside the pale.

How did this issue even come before Congress?

In December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors put out a list of 15,000 "shovel-ready" municipal projects that included a handful of improvements to museums and zoos, many designed to improve energy efficiency. Groups opposed to the stimulus plan called many of the projects an inappropriate use of federal dollars and linked the list to a comment from the mayor of Las Vegas that stimulus funding could help finance a museum on the history of organized crime. The House quickly inserted the gambling language into its version of the stimulus bill, and an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK) expanded it to include museums. That amendment passed 73 to 24.

Museum officials say the language is a clear sign that politicians don't fully understand how museums serve the U.S. economy and society as a whole. "Last year, museums attracted 850 million visitors," says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C. "That's more than the attendance at all professional sporting events in the country, and it tells you about our role in educating the public and boosting tourism. But if you ask most members of Congress, they'll say museums are nice but not essential."

Next week, the association hopes to change that attitude by bringing 310 members to Washington to lobby Congress. It's the first time the organization has engaged in this time-honored practice, says Bell, who plans to make it an annual event.