Smithsonian Will Cross the Pond for London Outpost

Photo by Gerard McGovern, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Smithsonian Institution is poised to open a new 40,000-square-foot outpost in East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, its first international expansion. The 168-year-old federal institution, based in Washington, DC, was approached about a possible U.K. location by London mayor Boris Johnson over the summer and is now seriously exploring the possibility.

The Smithsonian would be the first international institution to sign on for Johnson’s planned cultural quarter, being developed on the site of the 2012 games. Olympic Park is already home to Anish Kapoor‘s sculpture and observation tower ArcelorMittal Orbit, and local cultural organizations such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, University College London, and Sadler’s Wells dance theater have plans to move in. The project has been nicknamed “Olympicopolis” or “Borisopolis,” after Albertopolis, the stretch of cultural institutions created on Exhibition Road by Prince Albert after the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Johnson has also reached out to the Guggenheim, which has been criticized for its upcoming Abu Dhabi expansion, and is in the process of choosing a design for its planned Helsinki location. The trend for international expansions is growing, with the Louvre also preparing to unveil an Abu Dhabi outpost.

As the Smithsonian looks to finalized its London plans, Al Horvath, the institution’s acting secretary until David Skorton takes over in June, will enter into negotiations over the lease and a partnership with the London Legacy Development Corporation.

“An exhibition space in London will enable us to share the Smithsonian with an international audience in a way we haven’t been able to before,” Horvath told the Washington Business Journal. The institute, which operates 19 museums, including two in New York, also has distinctly British roots, as it was founded at the bequest of British scientist James Smithson.

The Art Newspaper reports that Johnson has allotted $50 million for the construction and inaugural programming for the museum, and that the U.S. government would not help fund the project. Private philanthropy and entrance fees for temporary exhibitions will take care of the cost of operations, expected to run $5 million to $7 million annually. Like its American counterparts, the new Smithsonian satellite will offer free admission to the permanent collection.

Back home, the Smithsonian has planned a $2-billion master renovation. The museum’s U.K. location could open as soon as 2021.

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