Couple Gives $15M for Smithsonian Ocean Hall

Updated: 6/27/2008


The chairman of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and his wife announced a $15 million gift Thursday to support the new Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History.

Roger and Vicki Sant will become the largest donors in the museum's 100-year history with a total contribution of $26.25 million for the major initiative on the world's oceans. The gift will fund education and maintenance of the exhibit. Previous gifts totaling more than $11 million funded an endowed research post dedicated to marine science and video production for the exhibit.

The exhibit will be named the Sant Ocean Hall in their honor.

''I grew up on the oceans in Southern California, but (my interest) got piqued when my wife and I decided to scuba dive about 15 years ago,'' Roger Sant said. ''Once you see the wonderful array of things under the water, you get hooked.''

He said the family's foundation also has donated about $25 million over the years for restoration of the Mesoamerican reef between Mexico and Honduras.

The 23,000-square-foot Sant Ocean Hall will be the largest renovation of the Natural History museum, which draws millions of visitors annually, since it opened in 1910.

It will join traditional fossil bones with high-tech video and displays that will include a 1,500-gallon tank with a coral reef and dozens of plants and animals. The $83 million hall is slated to open Sept. 27 after five years of work between the Smithsonian and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The exhibit will cover the ocean's geology, its diverse biology and other sciences, as well as the cultures shaped by the oceans.

''A lot of people still associate museums with animals that are stuffed, but this is really pushing the envelope,'' said Acting Smithsonian Secretary Cristian Samper, who will return to directing the Natural History museum on July 1 when incoming secretary G. Wayne Clough takes office.

Roger Sant, a wealthy Washington philanthropist, is co-founder and chairman emeritus of AES Corp., an international power company. Vicki Sant is president of the National Gallery of Art.

The naming gift for the ocean exhibit comes after Roger Sant led the Smithsonian's governing board in the unusual step of placing a $5 million donation from the American Petroleum Institute on hold last year. He said the oil industry's record of spills could taint the ocean project.

The API withdrew its planned donation in November 2007. Sant said the donation was not intended to replace the API's funding. Instead, anonymous donors have provided replacement funding, he said.

The Sants' donation for the Ocean Hall ranks among the largest in Smithsonian history.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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