The Smithsonian Privatizes Our History

The Smithsonian Institution is a revered empire of museums because it has long been a faithful curator of American history — a museum that belongs to us all. Its collections contain priceless artifacts of Native American life, the “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane and early space capsules, the Hope Diamond, Archie Bunker’s chair, and millions of other cherished icons of American identity. Now it appears that our history doesn’t really belong to us, after all, and that the Smithsonian’s foremost concern is not really the American people. Its real partner is the Showtime Networks cable channels.

Earlier this month, the Smithsonian Networks announced a joint partnership with Showtime Networks to create television programming. Sounds fine to me. But here’s the kicker: The deal gives the Smithsonian-Showtime partnership the right of first refusal for any commercial film documentaries that draw upon the Smithsonian’s collections.

That means that any filmmaker, historian or researcher who refuses to grant Smithsonian Networks the right to their films could be denied access to the Smithsonian’s collections. As a Smithsonian spokesperson put it: “If you are doing a one-hour program on forensic anthropology and the history of human bones” — a field for which the Smithsonian has a collection and inhouse expertise — “that would be competing with ourselves, because that is the kind of program we will be doing with Showtime On Demand.”

So let me ask this: Who financed the creation of the Smithsonian collection in the first place and pays its $644 million federal appropriation? How does a public institution like the Smithsonian justify such discriminatory access to the people’s history?

In this Age of Bush, which celebrates the privatization of government and sneers at democratic accountability, it should come as no surprise that the Smithsonian refuses to release details of the partnership deal. That’s “proprietary,” a Smithsonian spokesman said. Nor was any press release issued (or at least, I couldn’t find one on the Smithsonian’s extensive website).

The Smithsonian-Showtime deal bears a striking resemblance to Big Pharma’s exploitation of federally financed drug research. Let the National Institutions of Health do all the expensive, risk research, and then the private sector will swoop in and skim the cream off the pot. So here, Showtime is getting the near-exclusive right to the Smithsonian’s unparalleled collections, which we taxpayers have financed for decades. Any independent access and uses of Smithsonian materials must take a backseat to a cable channel that is only available, for a premium, to less than one-tenth of the American people.

“I think this is obscene,” filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt told the Washington Post (April 4, 2006). Kahn-Leavitt made an award-winning documentary about Tupperware which relied heavily on materials at the Smithsonian. “That film would not have been made without the papers of Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise that are at the Smithsonian,” she said, adding, “I am not against them having a deal with Showtime that is lucrative. But the archives are for the public to use.”

This is not the first time that the Smithsonian has confused the purposes of its public mission with those of a private corporation. As Gary Ruskin at Commercial Alert has documented, “Under the direction of Secretary Lawrence Small, the Smithsonian Institution has embraced commercialism and shifted its mission from ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge’ to acting as an auxiliary megaphone for corporate marketing and public relations efforts.”

How to protest? I recommend that you call the Smithsonian’s toll-free donation line (800-931-3226), or its email address ( and register your complaints about the Smithsonian taking our history private. Why should taxpayers and donors be taken as suckers? Why should citizens, filmmakers, historians and researchers be excluded from using the very archives that they have financed? The Smithsonian Institution is a public institution meant to serve all Americans, and not just Showtime’s shareholders and affluent cable viewers.

Addendum: Today’s Washington Post has a nice story about the civic and cultural appeal of free admission to the Smithsonian, and proposals by Congress to start requiring paid tickets. The article quotes one visitor at an exhibit: “I don’t think a dollar is a lot to ask. But part of the magic of coming to the Smithsonian is that it is free. I don’t think there are too many places in the country where you can experience that.” Indeed. One of the virtues of the Smithsonian’s free admission policy is the message that it sends: equal access is valued; it is a benefit of citizenship and the mark of a robust culture. Are we a nation of citizens, or simply a set of niche consumer markets?

Update: A coalition has drafted a letter to the Smithsonian asking it to disclose the terms of the contract, annul it, and hold hearings for any future actions in this area. You can read the letter at and sign on to it by e-mailing Carl Malamud at by Sunday, April 16, or faxing a signed version of it to him at 202-682-1867.