Historians Protest Smithsonian's Deals

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Society of American Historians, a group that promotes excellence in historical writing, has suspended Smithsonian Books from its ranks in protest over the Smithsonian Institution's "increasingly commercial approach to its mission."

The suspension itself will have little impact, but it is the latest symptom of friction between the Smithsonian's top managers and many of the nation's scholars.

The latest criticism follows a month of public debate over partnerships the Smithsonian made with commercial businesses and the change in policy about access to its archives. In a resolution passed by the historical group's executive board yesterday, the society raised questions about the deal with Showtime Networks to create a series of 100 programs a year based on the Smithsonian collections and experts. But the historians also raised questions about a second contract, this one a publishing pact with HarperCollins.

"We urge Smithsonian to reconsider its contract with Showtime, as well as the character of its publishing program. In the meantime, the SAH has suspended Smithsonian Books as a publisher-member of the Society of American Historians," the resolution said.

The group's members include such highly regarded historians as as Eric Foner, who won the Bancroft Prize for his volume on the Reconstruction era; Steven Hahn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his study of the political struggles of blacks in the South; and David Levering Lewis, who won two Pulitzers for his biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois. The society also has 17 publisher-members that set the society's standard for well-crafted literary texts. "We no longer have confidence that Smithsonian Books will adhere to this high standard," said Mark C. Carnes, SAH executive secretary and a history professor at Barnard College.

Linda St. Thomas, director of media relations for the Smithsonian, said officials at the institution had not received any notification from the society and would not comment.

Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins, said her company is engaged in a 15-month program to work with curators on books about work the Smithsonian is involved in.

"There is nothing exclusionary about our arrangement," she said, and the agreement "does not prevent any other writer from producing" a book about work done at the Smithsonian. "There is not a right of first refusal in the contract. Absolutely not."

In recent weeks, the Smithsonian has come under attack from writers, historians and filmmakers. The primary issue is how much access that researchers and producers not affiliated with Showtime will have to Smithsonian archives and the appearance of "right of first refusal" awarded Showtime for any project that has more than "incidental" use of Smithsonian materials.

"The Smithsonian is an institution that involves public money and public trust and is a public archives," said Elizabeth Adkins, president-elect of the Society of American Archivists. "It should follow the general guidelines of equal access. We are distressed."

The exact nature of the agreements are secret. The Smithsonian contends they are proprietary and not subject to freedom-of-information laws that require most federal contracts to be available for public inspection. However, a Smithsonian directive states that "the institution follows the intent and spirit of the law as a matter of policy."

Last month the Smithsonian announced it had entered a production agreement with Showtime Networks to create the cable channel Smithsonian on Demand. As a result, independent filmmakers wanting to make extensive use of the archives would have to offer their idea first to Showtime. Smithsonian officials have said they are not turning down requests from news, public affairs and educational outlets but did reserve the right to review the ideas from independent producers and probably would continue to approve "incidental" use of materials.

This change in policy has prompted several actions.

Last week, about 215 filmmakers and historians asked the Smithsonian to reconsider the deal. Ken Burns, one of the country's best-known documentary filmmakers, called the Showtime terms a mistake.

The Society of American Archivists also asked the Smithsonian to reconsider the Showtime arrangement. "We urge the Smithsonian to revisit the agreement and to abandon those portions that limit either access to the archives or distribution of a researcher's final results," said the society's president, Richard Pearce-Moses.

The American Association of Museums is monitoring the debate.

"Throughout the academic community, including our own, we are concerned about the access to materials in the government. I think the academic community is particularly concerned about these matters," said Edward H. Able Jr., president of AAM. "Our institutions should be as transparent as possible about what we do and how we do it. Transparency becomes complicated when there is a joint venture with a for-profit entity which includes proprietary financial information."

Able has met with Sheila Burke, deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the Smithsonian, to learn more about the agreements, but the association has not taken an official position.

The Society of American Historians, an affiliate of the American Historical Association, sponsors a series of prizes for novels and texts about history. The letter to the Smithsonian was signed by Foner, Hahn, Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson, Pulitzer winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and award-winning journalist and author Tom Wicker.

The group raised questions about the co-publishing deal with HarperCollins, one of the largest English-language publishers in the world. Signed in February 2005, the venture produces books for the general public, including the current "Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections" by Stephen Wong, "Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins" by Carl Zimmer and "My Battle of Algiers" by Ted Morgan.

With the HarperCollins partnership, 300 titles from the more than 1,000 on the Smithsonian's list were transferred to the new publisher. About 230 were retained for the scholarly publishing unit, still under the Smithsonian. Some 600 books were remainders and of those about 30 were less than three years old and could not be remaindered.

A spokesman for the publishing house said: "This is not a HarperCollins issue."

In their resolution, the Society of American Historians' board objected to the transfer of some history titles and absence of marketing for others, "often with no consultation with the authors."

In recent years the Smithsonian has been criticized for what some see as commercialization and its willingness to name spaces after corporations and individuals who give money to the institution. The family of businessman Kenneth E. Behring has given $100 million to the Smithsonian. The rotunda and mammal hall at the National Museum of Natural History are named for the Behring family, as well as the National Museum of American History building. The renovated home for the National Potrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be called the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, acknowledging $75 million in gifts.

The reason the Smithsonian must raise so much from private sources is basic. Congress does not provide enough money for the Smithsonian's 19 museums and the National Zoo. Last year Congress gave the Smithsonian $615 million. In addition, the Smithsonian raised $159 million from private sources and generated a surplus of $30 million from its business operations. It needed all of that to get through the year and pay for renovations and expansions. In fact, Smithsonian officials have argued that it is falling behind on maintenance.

Officials at the Smithsonian have said they want to increase the funds raised from private sources to meet growing financial obligations, including repair and restoration of its buildings. The archives provided a vein that had not been adequately mined, Smithsonian officials say, and no filmmaker had done entire programs about Smithsonian subjects in more than 20 years.

The Showtime and HarperCollins deals are part of Smithsonian Business Ventures, a for-profit division that is the subject of an audit by the Smithsonian inspector general audit that is looking into the division's large salaries and other business practices.

The American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries asked the Smithsonian for a copy of the contract with Showtime. The two organizations argued that the "mission of the Smithsonian militates toward full disclosure of this document."

They argued that as a public institution, the Smithsonian had a responsibility to let the taxpayer know about its business dealings. "The public interest in disclosure here is clearly high in light of the unique nature of the agreement and its potential impact on public accessibility of Smithsonian resources," said the organizations in a letter to the Smithsonian.

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