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Smithsonian In Talks Over London Outpost — Its First Overseas

The London 2012 Olympic Stadium at sunset at the Olympic Park in London. The Smithsonian Institution is working to establish its first international museum outpost in London as that city redevelops its Olympic park.
Alastair Grant

Updated at 12:08 p.m. ET

Along with Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, London may soon be home to a Smithsonian outpost.

The institution's Board of Regents has authorized museum officials to explore the Smithsonian's first international gallery outpost. Its home: near the site of London's Olympic Park.

If negotiations are successful, the Smithsonian would join the Victoria and Albert Museum, University of the Arts London and Sadler's Wells in the nearly 82,000-square-foot project.

London Mayor Boris Johnson and project developers have secured $50 million in private contributions for the Smithsonian to help anchor a new "Olympicopolis," the name for the new cultural center scheduled to open in 2021 at the site of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

John McCarter, chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, noted that the Louvre, the British Museum and other cultural institutions already have a global presence.

"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, according to The Associated Press. "So it's a great opportunity for us to get started and really to tell America's story."

In a statement, Johnson, the London mayor, said it "would be a massive coup to attract the Smithsonian Institution to east London."

The Smithsonian, the world's largest museum and research complex, would be housed in a 40,000-square-foot gallery. It would feature permanent and rotating exhibits, programs and activities from Smithsonian museums in the U.S.

Smithsonian Acting Secretary Al Horvath tells NPR's Ari Shapiro the exhibits would encompass the wide range of the Smithsonian's collections, from art to science to history.

"We have 137 million objects, most of which are not on display at any point in time, so i think we have plenty of raw material to work with," he says.

Horvath says this effort would not cost taxpayers. The Smithsonian's partners in London are raising private funds to construct the new building and bring artifacts over from the U.S.

It would in some ways be a homecoming for the Smithsonian, which was founded in 1846 with a $508,318 bequest (about $10 million in today's money) from English scientist James Smithson, a man who had never set foot in the U.S.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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