Laurie Kahn-Leavitt: Sealing up `our nation's attic'

Roundup: Talking About History

THE NONPROFIT Smithsonian Institution and television's for-profit Showtime Networks are teaming up. The plan is to create programming based on the many remarkable collections housed at the Smithsonian's taxpayer-supported museums and show it on a new cable TV network. When I found out about this deal several weeks ago, I didn't initially object because I know how desperately the Smithsonian needs money. I was curious, however, and called several insiders at the Smithsonian.

My jaw dropped when I discovered that the Smithsonian-Showtime deal will restrict legitimate filmmakers who do not work for the new joint venture if they wish to have more than "incidental" access to the Smithsonian. This means that independent filmmakers like me, and filmmakers working for PBS, the History Channel or Discovery, will have to submit to a review process; and if our films are judged to make more than "incidental" use of the Smithsonian's materials, curators and scientists, we can be denied use of the archives, denied the right to film at the Smithsonian and denied permission to interview Smithsonian personnel.

This all makes one wonder if the head of the Smithsonian, Lawrence M. Small, understands the public trust he's been given.

Only a handful of people know exactly what is in the Smithsonian-Showtime deal. When asked by members of the media for a copy of the contract, the Smithsonian's public affairs office replied: "This is a business contract that does not involve federal funds. Such contracts are confidential as they contain proprietary information that no company should have to share publicly."

It is important to remember that the Smithsonian's collections belong to the American people and that it receives 75% of its revenue from federal appropriations, government grants and government contracts. The institution's first annual report in 1847 clearly stated, "The government of the United States is merely a trustee." For more than 150 years the Smithsonian — often called "our nation's attic" — has collected and preserved documents, footage, photos, oral histories, music, artwork, cultural artifacts, scientific artifacts and much, much more.

I have been making historical documentary films for more than 20 years, and I've used the Smithsonian's vast collections for many of the films I've worked on. I got the idea for my latest film, "Tupperware!," while digging in the Archives Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. I was developing a series on the cultural history of plastic, and when I read the papers of Earl Silas Tupper (the reclusive, self-taught inventor of Tupperware), and those of Brownie Wise (the intuitive marketing genius who built an empire for Tupper by recruiting an army of Tupperware ladies), I realized I'd stumbled on a raw gem of Americana.

Unfortunately, if I were working on "Tupperware!" now, I might not be given permission to use the documents and footage necessary to make the film....

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