The Collector

January 25, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: The Smithsonian Institution, America’s cherished, at times troubled treasure chest, is getting a new boss. He’ll preside over the most visited museum on earth, as well as halls that seem not to have been frequented in eons — 16 museums and galleries that display everything from dinosaur bones to the Wright Brothers’ first viable plane, from the Hope Diamond to the lunch counter where civil rights sit- ins were first staged.

Yet for all there is on display, it’s a minute sample of the Smithsonian’s 140-some-odd million items, the bulk stashed away in a four-and-a-half acre building in suburban Maryland and rarely seen by anyone, save a handful of scholars.

The Smithsonian’s an institution all right, a congressional favorite, but also a sacred cow that has often cowered at issues of political correctness. So who will be just the 11th person to run the Smithsonian since 1855, who will try to modernize it and extend its reach while coping with the controversies?

An unusual choice himself, since he’s the first non-academic ever to take the helm, a former banker, crazed collector, and one of America’s foremost amateur flamenco guitar players, Larry Small. (Flamenco music playing) Despite the pizzazz in his pizzicato, it wasn’t Small’s flamenco chops, of course, that got him the job at the Smithsonian. For three and a half decades, Larry Small has been a banker– since 1991, the number two man at Fannie Mae, the huge home financing agency.

LARRY SMALL: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. This is a great day.

PAUL SOLMAN: Before Fannie Mae, Small spent 27 years with Citibank, most of it outside the US, and rose to vice chairman. Like many of us, the Smithsonian figured it could use a good money man to spruce up its old standbys, for instance.

LARRY SMALL: The fact is, if you look at this hall, this hall was built in the 1970′s. It really needs to be modernized if the museum is to stay alive and relevant.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because this is the old- fashioned way to show dinosaurs?

LARRY SMALL: It’s not terribly old- fashioned, but it’s reasonably old-fashioned. It’s been updated, but it’s not state-of-the-art. To get it state-of-the-art, you’ve got to raise money. And to raise money, there are certain ceremonial things you have to do. So I feel it’s okay to be out there. I think we have to be active because it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. If the museum isn’t up to date, people don’t want to give it money. If you’re not out raising money, you can’t keep the museum up to date.

PAUL SOLMAN: Small seems a good bet to raise money since he’s built up a vast and wealthy network over his decades in high finance. But it was not by bread alone that he caught the institution’s eye, nor even just by his management savvy. Small is also nearly as compulsive a collector as the Smithsonian itself.

LARRY SMALL: This one is what’s called an orator’s stool. This is where the head person comes to speak and to identify his place to talk to the village.

PAUL SOLMAN: His home boasting, among hundreds of other collectibles: A sacrificial hatchet from the Gilbert and Ellis Island, a mud helmet from New Guinea, Maori carvings from New Zealand, each with the familiar tongue gesture of…

LARRY SMALL: Defiance.

PAUL SOLMAN: Defiance? Just like…

LARRY SMALL: Yes, a courage, a war-like expression.

PAUL SOLMAN: So many items, in fact, Small was prompted to build a gallery in a DC apartment building with customized doors, lights, and display cases to house his Amazon collection.

PAUL SOLMAN: What kind of bird is that from?

LARRY SMALL: These are generally… These are variations of parrots and macaws. And some of this… A little bit of hummingbird, once in a while and some very delicate pieces, but mostly the different kinds of parrots and macaws.

PAUL SOLMAN: I mean, you have all these things around. You speak in a very kind of measured and very intelligent way. It’s hard… You know, but then I start looking around as you’re talking and I’m thinking, “this guy sounds so reasonable, but this is a true obsessive here.”

LARRY SMALL: It’s hard for me to answer. Why don’t we say “a reasonable obsessive”?

PAUL SOLMAN: An obsessive who thinks he’s reasonable because his booty teaches him lessons about both culture and economics. The wild pig tusks on this New Guinea orator’s stool, for instance, are symbols of wealth, pigs being the major currency there, used to buy all of life’s necessities, including wives, but something Larry Small the banker wanted to know more about.

LARRY SMALL: So I asked through an interpreter whether my wife would be of interest to him, and if so, how many pigs? And he replied… He took a very clinical look at her and said, “not a pig over 23.” And I said, “what do you mean ’23′? I’ve been talking to the other people here, and they said that the going rate is 28 to 30.” And he, through an interpreter said, “well, let’s face it, she’s used, and secondly, I really don’t think she’s going to be very good at field work, so…”

PAUL SOLMAN: A quirky sensibility, Larry Small’s, one that could conceivably run into trouble at a visible public institution in Washington, DC, where political sensitivity is such that in recent years the “Enola Gay” exhibit and an Israel lecture series were both revamped due to public pressure. A cooking series that included pate de foie gras was actually canceled because of animal rights protests that geese are gruesomely force fed to expand their livers, their foie gras, to make the stuff. Some think the institution was caving in, but says Small…

LARRY SMALL: If you had guards coming in and hauling out people because of goose liver from the Smithsonian, you would probably have created a greater furor. So I support the decision that was taken then just to say, “this isn’t worth it. Let’s cut it.”

PAUL SOLMAN: In our nation’s capital, Small notes, almost anything can be politicized.

PAUL SOLMAN: George Washington, like a Roman emperor with his hand up in the pose of Zeus, this was once a controversial item.

LARRY SMALL: This statue was put in the Capitol Building back in 1841, and people hated it. They said it’s terrible that George Washington is not clothed. He looks like an emperor here. And they threw it out, and they put it on the lawn. And then years and years later, it came to the Smithsonian.

PAUL SOLMAN: Times change, issues change. As a private collector, Larry Small has passionate preferences.

LARRY SMALL: But museums, really, when they look at history have to be fair, they have to represent balanced points of view.

PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, in public, Small can already sound like a conservative banker.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you’re essentially a diplomat in this job?

LARRY SMALL: I think trying to deal effectively with people in a sensitive way is an important part of the job. If that’s what diplomacy is, then the answer is yes. (Flamenco music playing)

PAUL SOLMAN: Diplomat banker or even collector– none are what Small had in mind as a freshman at Brown in 1959. He heard a flamenco LP playing in a college dorm, and his life’s work, he thought, was revealed.

LARRY SMALL: I had this lightening bolt that hit me, and I said, “I’ve got to do this. I’m going to devote my life to this.”

PAUL SOLMAN: To becoming the world’s greatest…

LARRY SMALL: …Greatest flamenco guitarist. And I went to Spain to do it, and I failed.

PAUL SOLMAN: Small may have failed, but he loved Spanish, Spain, foreign cultures. International banking became his fallback.

PAUL SOLMAN: You’ve got to be the world’s greatest banker flamenco player.

LARRY SMALL: That may be. It’s possible, I suppose, but I haven’t taken a poll of that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Small’s yearning to play to the crowd might seem like a strength at his new job. He talks of more traveling exhibits, using technology to reach out to the broadest possible audience. But that has some folks worried about dropping to the lowest common denominator, worried about “McMuseum” and the Disney-fication of the Smithsonian.

LARRY SMALL: I think there is a line to be drawn. On the other hand, I think we can all recognize that people like Disney, the Disney Company, have figured out ways to make exhibits, to make experiences compelling for people. And I think the thing for us to do is to take the positive of how they approach the public and apply it to the more educational mission that we have and draw more people in and have them come away with more memorable experiences.

PAUL SOLMAN: Memorable experiences: Larry Small hopes to increase them during his reign, including as the now-powerful secretary of the Smithsonian, memorable experiences for himself.

PAUL SOLMAN: I had asked them actually if we could go up into the train.

LARRY SMALL: I think I can say it’s okay. So let’s go.

LARRY SMALL: Okay. This is great.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you have enough head room?

LARRY SMALL: Yeah, I can stand up in here. Start it up. Come on, why not?

LARRY SMALL: If we’re going left, I’m the fireman, and I have to look out the window to see if there’s anything on the track. And if I do see something, what I do is I… (Bell rings) …I ring the bell.


LARRY SMALL: And we keep going.

PAUL SOLMAN: Larry Small officially began steering the Smithsonian this week.