More Sunshine for the Smithsonian

In bureaucratic terms, a new report from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) offers a fairly damning critique of the way the Smithsonian Institution implemented its contract with the Showtime Network and provided information to the general public.

Echoing many of the concerns expressed by the American Historical Association last April, the GAO found:

  • “While the contract contains definitions for the terms academic, curriculum-based, and scholarly, it does not specifically define incidental use.”
  • The Smithsonian and Showtime had different understandings about whether “scholarly programs” using Smithsonian content “must first be offered to the new venture.” As a result of the GAO pointing out the disparity, “the Smithsonian and Showtime reached an agreement that the provision does not apply to third-party generated scholarly programs.”
  • “Since the contract became effective in January 2006, the Smithsonian has been working to put in place policies and procedures necessary to implement the contract, but the information it has provided about the contract’s impact to interested parties has been insufficient.”
  • The impact on filmmakers remains contingent on the number of requests in a given year. “[I]f the number of those requests is large, then some filmmakers’ requests will be denied.”
  • “Some of the key characteristics of effective and efficient government programs are transparency and clear criteria that are consistently applied. However, the Smithsonian has not yet developed a mechanism or process to synthesize its decisions over time into a record of precedents that would provide filmmakers with additional guidance for their use in developing future filming requests.”

The Smithsonian agreed to implement most of the changes recommended by the GAO, but as the report details, they have a ways to go before they rebuild public trust in the administrators at the “nation’s attic.”

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