The name of the Seahawks' former owner, who schemed to move the team to Anaheim more than a decade ago, is now be-marbled on the Smithsonian Institution like a Roman god. Maybe to expiate for his venture in NFL pirating (among other sins) Behring ponied up a record $80 million in 2000 to establish the Ken Behring Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The rehabbed facility opened in November of 2008.
The Behring Center serves as a kind of philanthropic carbon offset: No eightysomething real-estate mogul could be that nasty if he's hemorrhaging millions to a worthy cause, right? (and the Smithsonian is not one to beware of Behrings bearing gifts). The irony is, relative to the metastatic corporate branding of public institutions, benefactor naming seems like no big deal.
Visitors to the National Air and Space Museum in DC are now greeted by a Welcome Center sponsored by Rolls Royce. And lest there be any doubt that the Cold War is really, truly over: Displayed in front of a Soviet-era SS-20 and a U.S. Pershing II missile a film logo reads, "Scenes from the Movie are Inspired by this Artifact! Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." (Yes, the DVD staring Ben Stiller is available for sale at the museum gift shop.) Alas, the identical promo also fronts the original Wright Brothers flyer.
Strategic philanthropy aims to magnify existing brands. Inside the Behring Center, for example, is the refurbished Old Glory that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner. The underwriter? Polo Ralph Lauren.
Somewhere in Canada Naomi Klein, who authored the anti-corporate manifesto, "No Logo", can't stop screaming.
Branding and commercialism generally cheapen public spaces. For those who consider the Smithsonian a national shrine, it's like draping a cathedral pulpit in an Old Navy ad. Still, in the age of austerity, it's the swallow-hard lesser evil to accept limited branding. One of the few alternatives would be to charge Smithsonian visitors which seems, well, un-American.
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