Letter from Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small
Lawrence M. Small
April 26, 2006
Ms. Linda K. Kerber
President American Historical Association
400 A Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
Dear Ms. Kerber:
I’m writing to respond to your letter sent earlier last week. Let me state, first, it has been very perplexing to me and to many of us at the Smithsonian that such deep and public concerns have been raised about this venture before asking us to discuss the actual facts.
You have voiced a concern about the perceived “secret” nature of the agreement for the joint venture with CBS/Showtime Networks, Inc. This agreement was years in development, fully reviewed and vetted for its impact on Smithsonian mission activities prior to the final approval of the Board of Regents, the governing body of the Smithsonian (which includes the Vice President, the Chief Justice of the United States, six members of congress and nine citizens). While financial terms haven’t been made public due to confidentiality provisions in the contract, the aspects of the contract relating to access to the Institution’s collections, archives, and staff have been discussed and explained. The contract is subject to a confidentiality provision, not unusual for not-for-profit or for-profit organizations in their normal course of business.
The fear the Smithsonian is curtailing or constraining the work of historians and documentary researchers seeking to use the collections is unfounded. This new venture will not constrain the access or use of our content for academic, curriculum-based, or scholarly purposes, which will continue as they have under policy and procedures that have been existence for quite some time.
The Smithsonian has always managed access to its collections, people, and sites. We receive thousands of requests for access every year, and most of these requests are to conduct academic research, to work with the collections, and to exchange or lend artifacts. Access to the Smithsonian’s many resources to scholars, journalists, and educators has been and will always be a hallmark of the Institution. For 160 years, the Smithsonian has collaborated with the education and research communities and supported an enormous variety and volume of academic and curriculum-based programming. We have every intention of continuing to do so.
All access and use of our content for news and public affairs purposes will continue unaffected. And access and use of our content for non-commercial purposes, such as for programs to be distributed on local access (e.g. Montgomery County local access channel), C-span, by educational institutions, government entities, and scientific or research organizations are not limited in any way by the venture.
I want to assure you and the community of historians, archivists, librarians, and researchers you will not be excluded or restricted from access to the Smithsonian’s archives, collections and libraries, and our staff. We’re committed to maintaining the standards and best practices of the profession, and we’re proud of the public service which that access provides. The concern the Smithsonian will be infringing on the work of third parties who access our resources is also completely unfounded. There is no “first right” of the new venture or requirement of third parties to participate with the Smithsonian in anyway as a condition of access.
The area that appears to be the basis for actual concern is for filming rights at the Smithsonian, specifically for those who seek to use our resources for commercial purposes. The Smithsonian has always determined with whom and under what terms and conditions we would make available for filming Smithsonian collections, curatorial staff, and facilities. With regard to our archives and libraries, we always refer requests to use these resources for commercial products to our licensing specialists for evaluation. This is a common and necessary practice to manage the assets for which we serve as steward. Smithsonian filming access policy and procedures have followed standards and practices that were established long before the new venture was created and have always required third party filmmakers to identify the access and use which are being requested. This process is not changing. What is changing as a result of the new venture agreement is the Smithsonian will be producing and distributing television programming through our own venture and, therefore, is reserving the right to choose how commercial producers (whether they are independent producers or broadcasters) can use significant amounts of Smithsonian content and resources to create programs that will be sold to commercial distributors. By doing this, we will avoid competing with our own venture.
Concerns that the new venture is exclusive are false. The only impact of this new venture will be on producers who wish to make significant use of the Smithsonian’s resources and then sell their product to commercial media distributors. Over the last five years, only a handful of the 350 filming agreements entered into between the Smithsonian and independent producers would have fallen into this category. In actuality, the preponderance of filmmakers have not historically used Smithsonian content more than in an incidental way, as even Ken Burns now admits was the case for his films, and we wish to continue and encourage this kind of access and use. The work of documentary filmmakers is an important contribution to America’s cultural heritage, and the Smithsonian is proud to participate in the small way that we have. We will continue to provide free and open access to the Smithsonian to the hundreds of documentary filmmakers who use our resources for research or to consult with Smithsonian scholars and curators each year.
Lastly, a troubling notion has been raised that the venture is a violation of the trust of Americans who have donated items to the Institution with the belief their donations would be freely accessed—openly and equally—by the public. The Smithsonian always has and always will comply with the explicit terms of all donations. This supersedes any subsequent agreements. As you know, the Smithsonian doesn’t charge admission to its museums. This is not the same as the Smithsonian absorbing the financial impact of access to its content for the use of that content for commercial purposes. I want to reiterate, again, this contract relates only to audiovisual programs produced with Smithsonian content for commercial exploitation.
Much of the criticism surrounding our new venture with CBS/Showtime Networks, Inc. has been caused and perpetuated by a lack of understanding, and we appreciate the legitimate concerns raised. While we do expect the venture to produce significant long-term gain for the Institution to meet funding needs that otherwise would not be met, the new venture is crucial to the Smithsonian’s mission since it will permit us, finally, to harness the power of television to touch the lives of millions of people we otherwise would not reach. This purpose is vital to our 160-year-old mission for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” And we have had neither the financial resources nor the expertise to expand this reach, until now.
I hope this clarification is helpful to you and that you will share the information with your colleagues.
All the best,
© American Historical AssociationLast Updated: February 26, 2008 11:03 AM