While much of the public outcry has focused on the attacks on research at the Institution, Small has made it clear that he plans to replace the career civil service staff of the Smithsonian with minimum-wage, benefitless contractors, who can be hired and fired without the protections of the civil service system. This includes, for example, the staff of the Institution's print shop, its motor pool, and, it is rumored, perhaps even its guard force. Mail service is to be greatly reduced.

Read more about the closure of the renown Smithsonian Productions, the Academy Award winning branch of SI, deemed unnecessary by the Secretary.

To find out more about the planned closure of the Smithsonian Center for Matrials Research and Education click here.



April 26, 2001


TO:                 Lawrence Small, Secretary


THROUGH:            Rex Ellis, Chair, Division of Cultural History, NMAH


FROM:            Howard Bass, Dwight Blocker Bowers, Camy Clough, John Fleckner (NMAH Archives Center), Rayna Green, John Hasse, Cynthia Hoover, Ellen Hughes, Niani Kilkenny, Kennith Kimery, Charlie McGovern, Marvette Perez, Bernice Johnson Reagon (Curator Emerita), Patrick Rucker, Kenneth Slowik, Atesh Sonneborn (Smithsonian Folkways), Gary Sturm, Jim Weaver, James Zimmerman (except where noted, Division of Cultural History, NMAH)


SUBJECT:            Smithsonian Productions


It was with the greatest dismay that we heard of the elimination of Smithsonian Productions. The effect of such a decision is profound and the intention of this document is to draw attention to the many ways in which this superb unit serves the interests of the institution and those of audiences across the country and around the world. Outreach is crucial to our mission at the Smithsonian, and arguably there is no single unit that embodies outreach like Smithsonian Productions. The staff’s commitment to excellence and dedication to producing products of the highest quality serve as an example to all of us. That their colleagues in the industry hold them in the highest regard is clear from the many awards they have received. What message about the Institution’s long-term media strategy does demolishing this unit send? We are also profoundly disturbed that such actions are taken without consultation with those who have worked closely and successfully with Smithsonian Productions for many years.


For more than 35 years, Smithsonian Productions (previously the Office of Telecommunications)—working with a wide variety of SI collaborators and others from the media world including PBS, NPR, Arts and Entertainment, and Public Radio International (PRI)—has created hundreds of radio and television shows and series, recordings, and exhibition audio and video, many of which have won the industry’s top accolades, including the Academy Award, local and national Emmys, Peabody, Grammy, DuPont-Columbia, among many others. Such products bring the Smithsonian’s collections, research, and messages to millions of viewers and listeners throughout the world, places where other methods of outreach cannot easily go. Virtually every major exhibition at NMAH (and many at other Smithsonian bureaus) is produced with the collaboration of Smithsonian Productions, whose videos often comprise some of the most memorable experiences for our visitors. (See attachment for partial list of recent projects.)


Without Smithsonian Productions, there will be no one our staff can go to for impartial advice on planning and budgeting; no one to provide independent assessments of the myriad outside broadcasters, producers, and production houses. We will be forced to work with non-SI contractors who lack knowledge of the ins and outs of the Smithsonian's curatorial divisions, collections, programs, politics, and offices; as a result, no outside contractor will be able to provide the directness and time- and cost-efficiency routinely provided by Smithsonian Productions. Besides the additional cost, this will entail a significant amount of staff and administrative time locating contractors, competitively bidding contracts, and creating contracts and purchase orders; here lies part of the hidden cost of this action.


In short, Smithsonian Productions provides far more than nuts-and-bolts production services. It is integral to our work here, essential to our communications and outreach, critical to maintaining the highest standards of quality in research and presentation that is the ineluctable bedrock of our brand equity with the public. The value of close working relationships established over many years cannot be estimated in dollars alone. Institutional memory and loyalty to a common cause simply cannot be outsourced. Projects of the quality and integrity that come from Smithsonian Productions are a result of a commitment to excellence that has been a hallmark of this institution. Such products, if they indeed can be duplicated in a future without Smithsonian Productions, will be far more costly. In reality, without our own in-house production unit, in many cases such projects simply won’t happen at all.


The decision to eliminate Smithsonian Productions is thus a mistake, one that will become clearer over time. All of us are aware of the difficulties the Institution faces with budget issues, and recognize that cuts are at times a necessary evil. But we urge you to reconsider this decision with full knowledge of the important role played by this unit. We also ask that when such decisions are contemplated that there be direct consultation with those who are positioned to know the value of such entities, and the real costs and meaning of such a decision.


cc: Robert Bailey, Sheila Burke, Spencer Crew, Martha Morris, Jim Gardner





A sampling of recent examples of Smithsonian Productions projects and products:


  • Jazz Smithsonian: Production of six years of this widely distributed series, hosted by Lena Horne and derived primarily from recordings of concerts by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (whose first CD was also produced by Smithsonian Productions). The past year’s series included four programs devoted to Scott Chinery’s “Blue Guitars” concerts at NMAH and Wolf Trap. Collaborated with SJMO to produce the Institution’s first two interactive DVD video discs, complete with state-of-the-art, multi-channel soundtrack, due for release and sale to the public later this year, all at no out-of-pocket cost to the Smithsonian.


  • American Voices: Supervised conception, production, and installation of all three video components for NMAH's Discover Card-sponsored display “American Voices” for the America's Smithsonian sesquicentennial touring exhibition in 1996. 


  • Memphis: Cradle of Rock 'n' Soul: Provided extensive support for exhibition and national radio production and distribution (through Public Radio International). Consulted on exhibition design and budget for every audio, video, and multimedia component; selected, contracted, and supervised the work of location film team; recorded oral history interviews with more than sixty members of the Memphis music community; produced all audio and video components in the exhibition; supervised installation of the highest quality audio, with HDTV picture, and multi-channel sound (the first Smithsonian installation to do so); produced, on short notice, an audio tour for exhibition visitors, including script consultation, music, interviews, and other audio components; sought and received support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for a 13-hour public radio series, hosted by Memphis-native Cybill Shepherd, now reaching audiences in 100 radio markets across the U.S.


  • River of Song: Production of radio and television versions, and national radio distribution


  • Piano300: Production of the “Piano Grand” performance gala already widely broadcast on PBS and the documentary on the history of the piano that will air later this year, production of exhibition audio listening booths, and assistance with the highly popular concluding video in the exhibition.


  • Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women: Field and studio recording and post-production on two highly acclaimed albums, produced in collaboration with NMAH and Smithsonian Folkways.


  • Oral Histories: Les Paul, Jerry Garcia, Mohammed Ali, James Worthy, and countless others, and technical advice and recording studio space for the jazz and popular culture oral history project


  • American Encounters: Production of five films in the exhibition, which they then repackaged for distribution as part of the State of New Mexico's traveling exhibition version; also production of Spanish language versions. Field and studio recording and production for two exhibition and program-related Smithsonian Folkways albums, Music of New Mexico: Native American Traditions and Music of New Mexico: Hispanic Tradition.


Among countless other highly regarded projects: Black Radio, Wade in the Water, Jazz Singers, and Remembering Slavery, most of which are both radio programs and commercially available recordings and thus crucial to ongoing efforts to reach traditionally underserved audiences


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