July 27, 2017

Members of the Board
National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution
MRC 106, P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Dear Members of the Board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History,
The Smithsonian confirmed to the Washington Post earlier this week that the NMNH will demolish the Johnson IMAX Theater—the premier theater in the United States for screening IMAX educational documentary films about nature—in order to “make people more comfortable” and because you think an expanded cafeteria “will be more attractive.”

Having first explained your plan to demolish the theater was in order to expand food service, a Smithsonian representative has now told the media that it is also “a museum decision to make other use of the space for future museum programming.” The public has yet to be informed what this programming will be, how much it will cost, and who will fund it.

We believe the museum has an obligation to provide specific details that fully answer these
questions in light of its plan to destroy one of the premier venues for natural history
programming in the United States, and the current federal budget environment. How do you propose to secure the funds needed to replace this flagship educational resource with something equally in line with the museum’s mission?

Since the museum states in vague terms that the theater is “not meeting the goals we set for it,” we respectfully ask the board to explain what these goals are. The Smithsonian’s own stated Grand Challenges include:

  1. Magnifying the transformative power of arts and design
  2. Unlocking the mysteries of the universe
  3. Understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet
  4. Valuing world cultures

Every IMAX documentary film about nature fulfills these Grand Challenges, not to mention the museum’s own stated mission of being “dedicated to understanding the natural world and our place in it.”

While the museum, which does not charge admission to its exhibits, claims the Johnson IMAX Theater is underutilized at an average 20 percent capacity, over 300,000 people bought a ticket to see an IMAX movie there last year, including tens of thousands of school children who receive discounted entry. Approximately 80 percent of all ticket sales go to the Smithsonian, allowing it both to fulfill its educational mission and earn a profit.

As part of the reasoning for the demolition, the museum also states that the cafeteria is frequently overcrowded (like the Johnson IMAX theater, which is frequently sold out), yet the cafeteria is empty for much of the day. Could the board state what the cafeteria’s utilization rate is and if, as is likely, it is less than 20 percent, advise if it should also be demolished?

Lastly, a Smithsonian spokesperson recently stated to the media that there are “tentative plans to offer some natural history themed films at the Air and Space location as the schedule permits.” Is this signaling the Smithsonian’s willingness to compromise the mission of the Air and Space Museum, which is dedicated to flight, in order to make up for its destruction of the nation’s premier venue for IMAX films about nature?

We believe there are ways the museum can expand the cafeteria without sacrificing the Johnson IMAX Theater and the Smithsonian’s core mission. We urge board members to reconsider their decision, to further question these plans, and to direct the museum’s leadership to engage with the public to find a way to best serve the actual interests of its visitors, especially children and school groups, and fulfill the Smithsonian’s Grand Challenges.

Sincerely,

Taran Davies, CEO, Cosmic Picture Jonathan Barker, CEO, SK Films
Save Our IMAX (www.SaveOurIMAX.org)

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