August 21, 2017

 

Secretary David Skorton
Smithsonian Institution
1000 Jefferson Drive SW
Washington, DC 20560

Dear Secretary Skorton,

I am sure you have read the Washington Post’s Sunday forthright editorial yesterday calling the Smithsonian’s decision “a shame” to destroy the Johnson IMAX Theater (“The Smithsonian is closing down an Imax theater. It shouldn’t.”). The same editorial also called out the Smithsonian for not being able to produce any documentation that an expanded cafeteria will earn more revenue than the theater. Meanwhile, the museum has asserted to the media this project will cost $16 million, a figure made without soliciting any cost proposals from qualified construction firms. Construction costs always have a way of skyrocketing, meaning the real price tag to the museum could be much, much larger.

Poor project planning and wasteful spending of taxpayer funds is a combustible combination. Now is the time for you to hit the pause button and to call for an immediate halt to the museum’s ill-conceived plan to destroy the Johnson IMAX Theater, a venue enjoyed by tens of thousands of school children every year. Your leadership is required to avoid further scrutiny of this plan, a plan which is fast becoming an embarrassment to the venerated 171-year-old Smithsonian Institution. Thoughtful planning, professional studies, and sober cost/benefit analyses are required.

The urgent need for your leadership was made even clearer when the filmmaking world read with intense interest—and no small amount of surprise—your Politico interview last week. Your comments on public engagement, open dialogue and an interest in best serving children, were of particular note.

In your Politico interview, you state that “we don’t emphasize dissemination of scientific information to the public in a form it can be digested by non-specialists” and you assert that “both science and the media have in a sense failed the American public by not making that stuff more digestible.”

This is the essence of IMAX documentary films about the natural world. Through an immersive experience, we explain paleontology, biology, zoology, anthropology, archeology, geology and a

host of other sciences, all brought to life on a six-story screen with sweeping visuals that mesmerize audiences, especially children. As the Washington Post editorial board wrote on the transformative power of this venue: “[P]arents say their children have left the Johnson Theater suddenly determined to become scientists.”

You also mention in the Politico interview that “one of the goals in our new strategic plan … is to really try to interact more with the school-aged population of D.C. And I’m serious about that — we really want to do this as good as we can to serve the city.”

If this is the case, there can be no possible rationale for taking away from children the ability to experience the natural world through IMAX. Tens of thousands of school children receive discounted theater tickets at the museum, and they will have nowhere to turn for giant screen natural history films. After all, the other two Smithsonian IMAX screens are dedicated to flight. Of these, the screen at Air & Space will be closed for two years for renovations, and the other, at Udvar-Hazy, is an hour away, making it inaccessible for many DC-area children.

Finally, the Politico article also mentions that you are proud of Smithsonian efforts “to convene conversations for and among the public on issues that are troubling.” We applaud this effort and ask that such transparency now be applied to the fate of the Johnson IMAX Theater. We are shocked the museum director has to date not held any public meetings on this issue, resorting only to vague and misleading comments to the public in response to queries from our group.

We therefore wish to reiterate to you our three requests to the Smithsonian:

  1. Defer the decision to destroy the Johnson IMAX theater and conduct a professional, 3rd party analysis to determine the value to the public of its various educational offerings, including the theater and the cafeteria.
  2. Release the theater’s full attendance numbers and issue an apology to the public for making misleading statements about attendance numbers.
  3. Explain why the museum has actively sought to undermine attendance to the Johnson IMAX theater by drastically reducing the presence of IMAX signage and ticketing in the main rotunda and cutting show-times, and to ask what steps it has taken to offer discounted tickets to the public, which many families cannot afford.

On behalf of the filmmakers of “Save Our IMAX” and its thousands of supporters who have expressed their dismay at the Smithsonian through letters, social media and a Change.org petition, I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Taran Davies
Producer
Cosmic Picture
—Save Our IMAX (www.SaveOurIMAX.org) Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

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