In November 2005, the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents approved a deal selling to Showtime, a private cable television company, the right to use the Institution’s collections and professional staff for television productions. The joint venture, known at the time as Smithsonian on Demand, would benefit Showtime by providing exclusive license and access to Smithsonian resources and provide the Smithsonian with much-needed private funds. The agreement is explained in this letter, from then Secretary Lawrence Small. I had the opportunity to speak with an employee of one of the Smithsonian’s archival units who was immediately impacted by the agreement. According to this source, the deliberations with Showtime were not revealed to the staff or the public. Due to the backlash resulting from the deal as well as questions about his personal use of Smithsonian funds, Small resigned in March of 2007.
There can be no argument that the agreement between Showtime and the Smithsonian stepped into a grey area, especially due to the lack of communication with employees and the public about what exactly the deal would entail. The archival collections were one large aspect of the Smithsonian’s resources covered by the agreement, but was not considered as closely as it should have been. This became a huge point of confusion and contention as staff struggled to understand how the agreement impacted their work. The officials who worked out the Smithsonian/Showtime agreement mistakenly assumed that filmmakers only used Smithsonian exhibits, artifacts, and curators in television productions when, in fact, the various Smithsonian archival units were the source of materials for many documentaries. As it was described to me, any requests to use archival materials for more than incidental use had to be referred to Smithsonian on Demand for approval. If the channel’s officials decided they had no interest in the project, its originator was allowed to carry on. If Showtime did become interested, however, the project could only continue through Smithsonian on Demand itself. This may not seem extreme until the case of an unfortunate PhD student who was not allowed to use materials from archival units to complete her documentary film dissertation project because Smithsonian on Demand wanted to make the film themselves. The deal was also done without consultation of staff trained in filmmaking, as the department of production had previously been dissolved. Today the agreement still stands and Smithsonian Networks is actively producing programs, although Smithsonian employees are doing all that they can to ensure flexibility to those desiring access to the archives.
The Smithsonian was not the first institution that has taken measures to prevent or make up for financial loss by selling or leasing collections or licenses to use the collections, nor do I believe that it will be the last. In our Introduction to Museums course, we discussed a number of museums that have de-accessioned their collections and used the money gained to keep their museums afloat. I understand the argument against selling off pieces for financial gain completely, and know that there is a very strong study of the law behind such deals. My question, however, is if it is better for a museum to be forced to sell certain artifacts rather than laying off their staff or even closing its doors forever. Would the lease have been “successful” had it not been exclusive? What other means can museum boards take to prevent having to close their doors, especially in such difficult financial times?