August 8, 2017
Members of the Board of Regents Smithsonian Institution
1000 Jefferson Drive SW
Washington, DC 20560
Dear Esteemed Members of the Smithsonian Board of Regents,
I am writing with great concern about the Smithsonian’s decision to close the Johnson IMAX Theater at the National Museum of Natural History in order to expand the existing cafeteria.
The Johnson IMAX Theater is the premier venue in the United States dedicated to presenting the most successful and impactful educational documentary films about nature. This theater and its massive six-story screen draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Many of these visitors are school children who come to learn about the wonders of the natural world through the IMAX experience.
I am concerned that this decision to demolish the theater was made without any significant public discourse, and Smithsonian spokespersons have issued multiple misleading statements on behalf of your venerable institution that require clarification.
On August 3, the Washington Times published an article in which NMNH Spokesperson Randall Kremer stated: “For four years the attendance [at the theater] has been going down.”
We believe this to be untrue. As IMAX filmmakers, our sales departments receive ticket information, sales histories and sales projections from the museum. Our records show that attendance has increased steadily every year from 2014 through 2016, and we understand the theater is profitable.
For an institution that educates millions of children and inspires future scientists, these facts and numbers matter. As the governing body overseeing an organization that receives 70 percent of its funding from American taxpayers, we respectfully request that NMNH release the exact number of ticket sales to the public so that we can better understand the motivations for closing this remarkable educational facility.
Mr. Kremer stated in a Washington Post article on July 24 that the theater is “not meeting the goals we set for it.” As the theater quite literally fulfills the museum’s mission to “Magnify the Transformative Power of Arts and Design” and each one of its four main goals, we have to assume that he is implying low attendance. However, the museum has removed all IMAX signage and the ticket booth from the main hall and all evening show times, seemingly to sabotage the theater for its grand food court plans. If the museum wishes for better attendance in its theater, why not discount the tickets, which are beyond the reach of the average family?
Finally, a July 26 article in the DCist quoted museum spokesperson Linda St. Thomas as saying, “It was a museum decision to make other use of the space for future museum programming.” The public has yet to be informed what that programming will be, how much it will cost, and who will fund it.
This secrecy and misdirection seems to suggest that the museum does not understand the value of the Johnson IMAX Theater or how it relates to the museum’s mission to promote understanding of “the natural world and our place in it.” The Johnson IMAX Theater provides audiences the proven ability to experience and learn about nature viscerally and creates a sense of wonder and connection to our planet for children and adults alike. As the Board of Regents, the fate of our country’s premiere venue for impactful educational documentary films about the natural world is in your hands.
My colleagues in the IMAX educational film industry respectfully request that an immediate inquiry is made into this matter before the museum destroys an educational resource to expand its ability to sell fast food, risking the reputation and brand of the Smithsonian Institution and its leadership among museums around the world. We have already written the National Museum of Natural History twice on this matter and have not received a response.
Taran Davies Producer Cosmic Picture