Smithsonian on Demand

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?

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2 Responses to Smithsonian on Demand

  1. gwoodcox says:

    I think this entry describes a dilemma we will likely all face during our careers: what are we willing to do to keep our institution functioning? The economy waxes and wanes and we are all along for the ride, whether we want to be or not. It is important to remember that we are more useful to our communities with our doors open, rather than closed forever.
    The Smithsonian’s mission statement calls it an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”. In it’s strategic plan for the 2009 fiscal year, the Smithsonian sets its first strategic goal as “enlarging the Smithsonian’s audiences, expanding its degree of engagement with the public…throughout the country…and improving the quality of the Smithsonian impact on its audiences.” By allowing Showtime to access their archives and information easily they are most definitely increasing and diffusing knowledge for the general public, by reaching a potentially huge audience. CNN noted a figure of 13 million subscribers for Showtime in 2005.
    Strategic goal four is to “provide the financial support essential to achieving the Institution’s goals”. The money generated by this agreement no doubt funds many programs that benefit the public well beyond the TV rights. It allows the Institution to better serve the public that supports it. In 2006 the institution noted a backlog of $94 million needed for overdue repairs, demonstrating that there is a need for extra funds. If that burden can be shifted away from the taxpayer, that may be a good thing.
    There are many valid arguments against the Showtime contract. It restricts academic research in the interests of Showtime and could alter the way the museum chooses its exhibits. Independent film makers are also left out of the equation.
    By accepting a contract with Showtime, the Smithsonian Institute is well within the bounds of its mission statement to “increase and diffuse knowledge” and its strategic goals also line up with the venture. Is better public service worth a few years of policy change? I say yes.

  2. Mandy says:

    Good point, Geoff. There does seem to be a valid trade off for this instance, and yes, the Smithsonian is well within the bounds of its mission in accepting this deal. However, as a filmmaker, it just doesn’t sit right with me. The letter written by Lawrence Small claims that researchers wanting to use the collection will still be able to do so for educational purposes without restraint. He states, “We will continue to provide free and open access to the Smithsonian to the hundreds of documentary filmmakers who use our resources for research.” And goes on to point out that despite what the receiver of the letter and the popular media thinks, the filmmakers don’t really even use the collection the way that we think they do – even Ken Burns agrees! Well, having not used the Smithsonian’s collection personally, this could be true. But isn’t one of the major points of a museum that it is a public institution, open and accessible for all? If, in the future, I do decide to make a documentary that utilizes the Smithsonian’s collection, why should I have to jump through legal hoops to be given access? This is an entirely personal rant, because as a museum professional, I can easily argue for the other side. Small ends his letter claiming that this “new venture” allows them to reach millions of people that normally would not be in the scope of the Smithsonian’s audience. Yes. It might. And that would actually be a great thing, because it fulfills the institution’s mission of “increasing and diffusing the knowledge.” There are thousands of people who are going to watch these shows and be introduced to some great pieces of American heritage. I’ve long been a proponent of moving past the bricks and mortar, and using technology to reach a broader audience. What I want to know is – the deal was made in 2005, the hubbubs all happened in 2007, it’s two years later – who’s seen the shows? What are the ratings? Do they have a website that is easily accessible providing more information on the topics that are shown, if people are so inclined to look it up? Do these sites include links to the Smithsonian? I think it can be agreed that the methods behind the deal may have been a tad shady, but if it’s all working out in the end, and the public is happy, then I’m happy as well…I just might need to start downloading and filling out the permission forms for using the Smithsonian collections now, if I plan on making any projects within the next decade.

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