Daily Dose: Should the Smithsonian Ban Products Made Overseas?

If you’re up for a challenge, you should definitely try your hand at Washington Post columnist Ed O’Keefe’s recent quiz on where popular Smithsonian souvenir items were manufactured. It is tougher than you might think…

Guess Where Smithsonian Gifts Are Made

Which leads me to a larger point, as well as another blog post from our friend Ed O’Keefe, about whether or not the Smithsonian should be selling items that were not made in the USA. In “Smithsonian’s ‘Made in America’ Mandate Not Easy to Achieve” Ed explains:

The Smithsonian Institution is converting the [3rd floor souvenir shop of the American History Museum] to sell only American-made products, an experiment that may mean higher prices for consumers but could pave the way for similar “Buy American” efforts at other Smithsonian shops.

The change is far from easy. Foreign manufacturers produce many of the most popular items at Smithsonian shops, including American flag pins and coffee mugs bearing an image of the Washington Monument. Illustrated maps of Washington are designed in Britain, postcards of the Smithsonian Castle are from South Korea, and the tag on a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt says “Made in Honduras.”

So why the sudden change? While shopping for Christmas gifts for his grandchildren last year, a certain Vermont Senator was outraged to discover many of the gifts stocked by the museum’s souvenir shop were made in China.

He issued an ultimatum to Smithsonian bosses: Either sell more American-made items or risk losing billions in federal funding.

Motivated by reports of Sanders’s efforts, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.), ranking Democrat on a committee overseeing Smithsonian construction funds, also drafted legislation that would withhold money for museum construction if Smithsonian gift shops didn’t convert to domestic-made goods. He called the Smithsonian’s buying practices an “insult to American workers.”

Museum officials announced their gift shop overhaul days later.

Sound like a bit of an overreaction? Well to many it’s absolutely not. “Buying American” continues to be a hot topic with supporters from all parts of the political spectrum joining the movement. With a high-profile, albeit average-grossing, entity like the Smithsonian backing the system, many hope it could be the key ingredient in sparking a greater change.

On the other hand, how realistic is it to try and end foreign manufacturing reliance completely? Perhaps it’s just not possible at this point? From a consumer’s standpoint, when faced with anywhere from a 10% to 50% price difference between similar items, which do you think they’re going to choose? Which would you choose?

The arguments for either side could go on and on, but let’s hear from you.

Do you think the Smithsonian is moving in the right direction by only stocking products made in the USA? Or is it just simply unrealistic or, as some claim, hypocritical to force this legislation when so many people already struggle to “practice what they preach”?


“Daily Dose of the Washington Post” is a blog series created by GovLoop in partnership with The Washington Post. If you see great stories in the Post and want to ask a question around it, please send them to [email protected].

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Peter Sperry

In this case, I think venue matters a lot. The Smithisonian is not Disney or Six Flags. It is the national museum of the United States. I wouldn’t expect to find made in the USA art reproductions in the gift shop at the Louve, the Tate, the Prada or the Forbidden City. One does not have to be excessively protectionist to expect a nation’s cultural landmarks to feature the products of the nation they represent. The Smithsonian should highlight American craftsmanship. There are more than enough street vendors to supply the demand for cheap foriegn trinkets. You can find them blocking traffic (particularly on 15th street) any afternoon in DC.

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

I applaud the effort.

The US has lost millions of jobs and a huge portion of its middle class because so many manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. We may pay less for many products, but are paying much more by basically bankrupting the government in benefit payouts and by tanking our economy because a mostly “service” economy is not sustainable.

When a factory closes in the US, it affects more than just the unemployed workers. The local housing market takes a hit, the small businesses that depended on it close, the local and state governments lose tax dollars, etc. Now aggregate this across thousands of factories across America over the last 40 years!

Sorry, I’m from Flint, Michigan, a city decimated by manufacturing job losses, so I’m a bit biased towards buying domestic…

Laura Strohbach

Peter, I completely agree with you. I am glad I read your post because I was getting ready to write one that reflects your points, but I think you said it much better than I would have. The venue and underlying funding source DOES matter though I have to say that as a consumer, I have become much more aware of where products are manufactured. I wanted to buy a mug, and I went to Home Goods where they usually have a good selection. Every single one was made in China. While I might not care so much if I was buying a decorative item, I am very concerned about reports of contaminants in their dishes. I did not buy any of them. (and don’t get me started on the bed bug issue)


I think they are moving in the right direction. It is important for institutions like the Smithsonian to not discriminate.

With so many talented artists and craftsmen & women in the U.S., to not provide crafts/gift items made by local talent is as oxymoronic as a GM executive driving around in an Audi…