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Too close to the sun

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Just weeks after his retirement from the post he held for 17 years, a Washington Post investigation into the expenditures of former NMAI director W. Richard West Jr. left many shocked and dismayed. Many, that is, outside of the museum and the rest of Indian country. Years of minor rumblings about West's extravagant style erupted when vivid details of ''lavish parties and travel'' emerged. Recovering well since the controversial appointment of Kevin Gover as West's successor, the museum may now be conducting a bit of reputation rebuilding as well.

The lengthy report, part of an ongoing series by the Post scrutinizing the greater Smithsonian Institution, painted with fine detail a portrait of West as an in-demand globetrotter, traveling, eating and slumbering first-class on the federal dime. The expose was not a complete surprise. West's close staffers, fearing embarrassment for both director and museum in the wake of recent Smithsonian fiscal scandals, recommended changes - not to itineraries or accommodations or sensibilities, but to the pot of money the director should use. Expensive fetes, bicoastal cocktail receptions and a gala dinner in honor of the departing West were billed to the Smithsonian's ''trust fund.'' The fund consists of privately raised money, including donations from Indian people, tribes and tribal organizations. If that does not make you uncomfortable, it might be time to get out of Washington.

What threatens the museum is the projection of power of one individual and not the values and hopes of the collective. To continue with a pattern of excess despite ground-level whispering and increasing scrutiny of the Smithsonian culture points to a lack of humility at odds with the museum's mission. Even West's poor attempt at mitigating criticism (ceasing his use of chauffeured cars because of its perceived negative appearance) is an insult to the marginalized people the museum represents and threatens to damage its image in the indigenous world.

It hurts staff, guests and, indeed, Indian country, that the NMAI is right now fodder for a Washington scandal. Gover is in a vulnerable position, but there are good signals that his early, modest leadership will guide the museum through this harsh period. Referring in September to the steps the Smithsonian was taking to recover from the public flogging of disgraced Secretary Lawrence M. Small, Gover told Indian Country Today, ''It's a big deal to me that I don't derive benefits from public service beyond my pay.'' Gover's comment at first might have seemed benign, but given recent events, it could be the most comforting notion his staff has heard in years.

With the right moves and good-hearted people around him, Gover can avoid being defined by the past. It is an opportunity for him to stabilize the ship and move the mission ahead; it is an opportunity for all of us to support the effort.