AT THE Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, visitors can go on an adventure through the Amazon. They can walk the purple mountain majesties of America’s national parks, and they can even travel back to the Cretaceous period and see dinosaurs come to life. That’s all thanks to the museum’s Samuel C. Johnson Imax Theater. On Oct. 1, after 18 years, it will all shut down.
Smithsonian officials say the museum has been planning the closure for a couple of years, in large part to make way for expanded food services: The Natural History cafeteria is the oldest and one of the smallest on the Mall, and in the summer it’s not rare to see a tourist wandering around helplessly holding a tray, waiting for a table to free up. The Imax space, on the other hand, only draws in 4 percent of those who visit the museum. Officials also say that the average screening reaches no more than 20 percent capacity.
But the Smithsonian could not provide a projection to show that a revamped dining area would net more profits than the theater does today. And though the museum has claimed that Imax attendance has “dropped off dramatically,” the numbers from recent years do not bear that out: In 2014, the theater sold about 265,000 tickets. In 2016, it sold 310,000.
In short, it seems the Museum of Natural History just isn’t that interested in Imax. And that’s a shame. The films, entertaining, educational and singularly immersive, have the ability to engage even the most reluctant museum-goer. Teachers take their students to learn about the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies; parents say their children have left the Johnson Theater suddenly determined to become scientists.
The Smithsonian claims the museum made its decision according to its mission, not a bottom-line calculation. Maybe, but chicken tenders provide less education to the public than, say, a film about the ancestors of the bird they come from. More promising is the area the demolition would free up that would not be devoted to food services. While an Imax ticket costs $9 for adults and $7.50 for children, the Smithsonian says the space could house new programming or exhibitions for which the public will not have to pay a dime.
Again: maybe. The Smithsonian secretary so far has declined to veto the theater’s closing, and barring an extraordinary reversal, the Johnson will shut down in a short six weeks. Natural History museum leadership has yet to provide a concrete vision for what, beside more hamburgers and french fries, will replace it. If Imax is going to go, those who have enjoyed it for so many years at least deserve to know that whatever it is making way for will be a worthy successor. And we’re still holding out for that reversal. Compared to losing the immersive and educational experience of an Imax film, is a crowded cafeteria really so unbearable?