Smithsonian Joint Venture With Showtime Raises Many Concerns

The Smithsonian Institution is a national treasure. It is the largest museum complex in the world, serving 25 million visitors per year. The staff of the Institution are some of the best in the business, maintaining an incomparable collection of archives and artifacts, providing leading scientific research and exemplary curatorial service to countless historians, filmmakers, and citizen researchers.

The Institution has always been underfunded by the U.S. Congress. It is natural that the management should look to creative ways to fund their operations. We think the U.S. Congress should provide higher levels of funding, and we support the Institution’s efforts to look for alternative channels. But, in doing so, the Smithsonian Institution must keep in mind that it is a federally-chartered public trust, and should work with the American people in an open and transparent fashion to come up with ways that service the public interest and maintain the mission set out for it by the U.S. Congress to promote “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

On March 9, 2006, the Smithsonian Institution entered into a joint venture with Showtime Networks to create a new video-on-demand channel called “Smithsonian On Demand.” The new service has the right of first refusal on any access to Smithsonian collections and staff. For example, if Ken Burns wishes to make a movie that makes “non-incidental use” of the Smithsonian archives or involves “non-incidental” access to staff, he could not offer his movie to PBS. Instead, he would have to offer it to the new venture.

In response to this agreement, over 200 concerned people have written to the Smithsonian expressing their concern. This letter was delivered to the Smithsonian Institution on April 17, 2006, with copies to 28 U.S. Senators and 23 U.S. Congressmen who have oversight over the Institution. In addition, because the agreement governing this new joint venture has been kept secret, a Freedom of Information Act request was filed by the Center, which is being represented in this matter by attorneys from EFF.

The Smithsonian Institution truly is a national treasure. The challenges of funding such a vast enterprise are truly great. However, before such a drastic change in policy is enacted, the Institution should take input from the American people in the form of public hearings, and should look to how other organizations have managed the delicate balance between generating revenue and serving the public interest. For example, the BBC Creative Archive has struck such a balance.

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