Privatizing history: The Smithsonian


Richard Moore

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End Smithsonian-Showtime Deal, Filmmakers and Historians Ask
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006; C02

More than 200 filmmakers and historians asked the Smithsonian Institution 
yesterday to abandon its production deal with Showtime Networks and reconsider a
recently imposed policy that limits access to Smithsonian archives and experts.

In a letter to Secretary Lawrence M. Small, the Smithsonian's top official, the 
group objected to restrictions on filmmakers and researchers who seek "more than
incidental" use of its public archives. After the Smithsonian signed with 
Showtime to make television programming, filmmakers and researchers whose 
projects focused extensively on the Smithsonian's holdings or staff were 
informed that they had to offer their film treatments first to Showtime.

"This policy will discourage independent filmmakers from creating projects for 
other media outlets. Indeed, this policy will also discourage an independent 
filmmaker from making a documentary and releasing it on the Internet on a 
noncommercial basis," said the letter, which was released by the 
Washington-based Center for American Progress.

The 214 signatories included actress Anna Deavere Smith, filmmakers Ken Burns 
and Michael Moore, as well as university professors and officials of WGBH in 
Boston and WNET in New York, two of the largest production units within the 
public broadcasting system.

The new policy on access was instituted at the beginning of the year but made 
public only last month. Objections to the exclusivity deal with Showtime have 
been particularly heated among documentary filmmakers, who regularly draw on 
Smithsonian materials and already pay fees to do so.

"I was horrified that the Smithsonian would even contemplate a deal that would 
give a for-profit broadcaster the right of first refusal," said Nina Gilden 
Seavey, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and director of the Documentary Center at 
George Washington University. "It is a fire sale of the nation's history."

Howard Besser, director of the moving image archiving and preservation program 
at New York University, concurred: "A public institution should not make 
exclusive agreements with commercial entities that preclude others from doing 

The letter, also sent to members of Congress, criticized the Smithsonian for not
releasing its agreement with Showtime and asked for the contract to be annulled 
because it was not subject to a competitive process and was finalized without 
public comment. The signers asked for hearings before the Smithsonian took "any 
further actions that limit access to the collections" or staff at the 

The Smithsonian maintains that the contract is a private business agreement, 
executed with private funds, and that its contents are propriety information. In
recent years, it has stepped up all of its business enterprises to earn 
unrestricted income for various projects. Its appropriation from Congress -- 
$644 million this year -- is used mainly for salaries and upkeep and repair of 
its buildings.

"We honor our contracts. This is a signed contract," said Linda St. Thomas, 
director of media relations for the Smithsonian. "The policy is only for 
filmmakers who are making a film for broadcast."

But the letter, citing the museum's standing as a publicly chartered operation 
that receives 75 percent of its funds from Congress, said: "The Smithsonian 
Institution is not merely a business venture."

Linda K. Kerber, the president of the American Historical Association, also sent
Small a letter objecting to the research rules. "We appreciate the difficult 
financial situation the Institution now faces, but expediency cannot outweigh 
the standards that should guide a premier institution for preserving the 
nation's historical legacy," Kerber wrote.

The Center for American Progress scheduled a panel discussion today with Burns, 
the award-winning filmmaker who mined material at the National Museum of 
American History for his PBS series "Jazz."
  2006 The Washington Post Company

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