THE SMITHSONIAN Institution has been called the nation's attic. Created by an act of Congress in 1846, it is home to priceless pieces of the nation's art, history, and science. Now it is becoming a television producer, a promising step based on a troubling deal.
Last month, the Smithsonian and Showtime Networks agreed to create Smithsonian Networks, a television show producer and distributor. This should put the Smithsonian's rich holdings into the nation's living rooms. And all financing will come from Showtime.
But as part of the deal, Showtime gets to stand by the attic door and decide which other producers can enter. A producer who draws heavily on the museum's holdings would have to give Smithsonian Networks first refusal on rights to the show. These decisions are being made on a case-by-case basis.
Documentary maker Ken Burns told The New York Times that the deal is ''terrifying," and said he couldn't have made some of his films if he had faced these rules.
''Not true," Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said in a telephone interview. For his jazz documentary, Burns made moderate use of the archives, something he could still do.
Smithsonian officials say the deal is also a matter of financial reality. The institution cannot afford to provide free access to producers who might sell their shows to commercial stations. That might make sense if the Smithsonian were a convenience store losing money because customers were reading magazines without buying them. But the Smithsonian is a federal trust. More than half its budget comes from a federal appropriation, some $620 million for 2006. Its mission is to disseminate knowledge.
St. Thomas says the limits are light. Since the deal was cut, there have been 26 requests for access. Only two have been denied. Meanwhile, millions of television viewers will have unprecedented access to Smithsonian materials and events.
Still, limits on the vast depths of American history and culture seem unnecessary. There's so much content that Smithsonian Networks should be able to thrive without locking out the competition.
An underlying problem is that the Smithsonian faces daunting bills. In addition to its daily work, the Smithsonian needs an estimated $2.3 billion in capital repairs.
Representative James Moran, a Virginia Democrat, has suggested charging admission. But America's museum should be free to all. Wisely, the Smithsonian's Board of Regents has repeatedly rejected the idea.
Smithsonian Network's public/private partnership is innovative. But given its provenance, the company should strive to keep its public commitment to openness.