Smithsonian chooses fast food over education

The Smithsonian Institution was founded 171 years ago with the mission of “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Add to that mission today the following: “You want fries with that?”

The venerated Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., has announced it will tear down the Johnson IMAX Theater—the premier theater in the United States dedicated to documentary films about nature—in order to sell more fast food.

For months, producers in the IMAX film industry like myself have been quietly told by Smithsonian officials that the theater will be torn down in order to expand the museum’s cafeteria. There has been no public dialogue, no open meetings, and no Smithsonian correspondence about this plan. What little information has been released to the public through Smithsonian spokespeople has been misleading at best.

Frustrated by this veil of secrecy from the museum and the institution’s headquarters, appropriately called “the Castle,” a dozen of the world’s top IMAX film producers banded together to launch the “Save Our IMAX” campaign, writing letters to the museum director and board asking for clarity.

The Johnson IMAX Theater is a national gem that fulfills the Smithsonian’s educational mission about our rare and beautiful world, and the irony now is that it, too, needs saving.

We received nothing in response, except vague statements issued through the media that the museum seeks “to make people more comfortable” and believes that an expanded cafeteria “will be more attractive.” The museum also claims that “for four years attendance (at the Johnson IMAX theater) has been going down,” an assertion which we filmmakers, who see the box office receipts and attendance reports for our films, are certain are incorrect. We have asked the Smithsonian to release its attendance numbers for the past few years and prove their claim, or otherwise refrain from misleading the public.

If the Johnson IMAX theater goes dark and the wrecking ball swings, America will lose its premier venue that showcases giant screen educational films about the natural world. We lose a place where audiences—many of them school children and many of them from other parts of the country without IMAX educational films—can be inspired to “understand the natural world and our place in it,” the stated mission of the National Museum of Natural History.

On screens six stories high, audiences soar over jungles, ascend Earth’s highest mountains, dive into the deepest oceans, experience cultures from around the world, and join scientists and explorers in the field in a visual and up-close experience that is unmatched in educational film. Is it any wonder that astronauts have been inspired to explore space by IMAX films they first watched in a museum?

Bringing these educational films to the giant screen is no easy task. My company has made two such films—Journey to Mecca and Jerusalem—with two more now in production. Both films took five years to make, production crews of hundreds of people, and thousands of hours of planning. They were the first time IMAX cameras ever filmed inside these cities’ most venerated sites. In Journey to Mecca we assembled the largest camel caravan in cinematic history—with more than 1,000 animals and 500 actors. We did this in order to bring an experience of culture and history that couldn’t otherwise be seen or imagined to a mass audience.

More than 300,000 people visited the Johnson IMAX Theater in 2016, including tens of thousands of school children, fulfilling not just the mission of the Smithsonian, but providing it at a profit (the Smithsonian keeps 80 percent of the box office receipts). If the National Museum of Natural History wishes to improve the number of visitors to its theater then why not discount the cost of its tickets, which many families can’t afford at the current rates, and why not add back the theater signage and ticket booth in the main rotunda, which it removed a couple of years ago?

Our children are the ones who will be faced with solving the most complex problems in human history. If they are to do that, they need to understand our world: Our cultures, history, nature. In short, the things worth saving.

The Johnson IMAX Theater is a national gem that fulfills the Smithsonian’s educational mission about our rare and beautiful world, and the irony now is that it, too, needs saving. Without it, there will be no other theater of any kind – let alone one with the impact of IMAX – in our nation’s capital dedicated to connecting people, and especially youth, to history, culture and nature. With 25 million visitors to Washington, D.C., every year, is the best we can offer them a tray of fast food? Do our children really need less education and more calories?

Film producer Taran Davies is a Co-Founder of Cosmic Picture, a production company that makes IMAX films. His upcoming films are Einstein’s Incredible Universe, about the power of human creativity and imagination to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and Superpower Dogs about the science behind the extraordinary abilities of working dogs, and the most successful inter-species partnership in history, the human-dog bond.