Film di­rec­tors de­cry Smith­so­nian’s de­ci­sion to nix IMAX

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY LAURA KELLY

Na­ture and ed­u­ca­tion film­mak­ers are cry­ing foul over the Smith­so­nian’s de­ci­sion to close the IMAX theater at its Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in order to ex­pand cafe­te­ria space.

Jonathan Barker, whose film “Ama­zon Ad­ven­ture” has played in the mu­seum’s Sa­muel C. John­son IMAX Theater since April 2016, said clos­ing the fa­cil­ity is a loss of a unique, ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence and raises ques­tions about the mu­seum’s ded­i­ca­tion to its mis­sion.

“You come to the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory. They don’t go there for lunch. They go there be­cause of the mis­sion of that mu­seum … and to ex­pose peo­ple to un­der­stand­ing the nat­u­ral world, that’s what it’s about,” Mr. Barker said. “That’s what th­ese films are in­tended to do, and they do it of­ten very, very suc­cess­fully.”

Mr. Barker said he and nine other IMAX film­mak­ers have sent let­ters to the mu­seum di­rec­tor and the Smith­so­nian board, and have started an on­line pe­ti­tion to bring the is­sue to the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion.

With its 66-foot-tall screen, the nat­u­ral his­tory mu­seum’s IMAX theater is one of only four in the District. The Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum has two IMAX screens, and an AMC theater in Ge­orge­town has one.

Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum spokesman Randall Kre­mer has said the IMAX theater will close at the end of Septem­ber. The cafe­te­ria will be ex­panded, and there will be more room for pro­grams and ex­hi­bi­tions, he said.

An in­ter­nal memo to staff announced the clos­ing to make way for a “sus­tain­able restau­rant” to ac­com­mo­date an ex­pected larger num­ber of tourists by 2019, when the Na­tional Fos­sil Hall is set to re­open af­ter ren­o­va­tion.

Tear­ing down the IMAX theater has been dis­cussed for more than five years, Mr. Kre­mer said. Af­ter mu­seum of­fi­cials de­cided to ren­o­vate the fos­sil hall, they dis­cussed how to ac­com­mo­date an ex­pected in­crease in visi­tors.

Board meet­ings and town hall dis­cus­sions among Smith­so­nian staff pre­ceded the de­ci­sion to close the IMAX theater, Mr. Kre­mer said, not­ing that theater at­ten­dance is down, with only 20 per­cent of its 475 seats filled at a show­ing.

“For four years the at­ten­dance has been go­ing down. It would also … be very costly for us to retro­fit the theater to show dig­i­tal con­tent. Right now we’re show­ing tra­di­tional analog film, IMAX, not dig­i­tal,” he said.

The Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory is one of the most pop­u­lar mu­se­ums in the District, hav­ing at­tracted 3.2 mil­lion visi­tors since the start of the year through June, sec­ond only to the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum. It ex­pects to wel­come about 7 mil­lion visi­tors each year.

Taran Davies, di­rec­tor of the IMAX film “Jerusalem,” which played at the mu­seum in 2013, is one of the sig­na­to­ries to the pe­ti­tion to keep the theater open. He said IMAX films pro­vide an im­mer­sive ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence that is in­com­pa­ra­ble to other new me­dia.

“One of the things that in­spired me to get into th­ese films is be­cause of the op­por­tu­nity to pro­vide a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for chil­dren,” Mr. Davies said. “When you see a good IMAX ed­u­ca­tional film, you are lit­er­ally trans­ported and im­mersed into an­other world like no other tech­nol­ogy or venue can oth­er­wise pro­vide.”

Both Mr. Davies and Mr. Barker dis­missed the idea that na­ture films cre­ated for an IMAX theater have a place out­side of the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum, such as those be­ing shown at the Air and Space Mu­seum.

“Is the Smith­so­nian go­ing to com­pro­mise its mis­sion at the Air and Space Mu­seum by show­ing films about bugs — or show­ing films about Jerusalem or Ever­est? It does make me won­der how well thought through this plan is,” Mr. Davies said.

Mr. Barker said that even if nat­u­ral his­tory films were shown at the Air and Space Mu­seum, they would only have a few show­ings com­pared to the amount of play they have at the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum.

“The most that would ever hap­pen is a show or two a week as op­posed to mul­ti­ple shows all day long, ev­ery day, which is what hap­pens at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory,” he said.


The Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory will de­mol­ish its Sa­muel C. John­son IMAX Theater in Septem­ber to ex­pand its cafe­te­ria and make more space for ex­hibits, a de­ci­sion that has an­gered di­rec­tors whose films play in the large-screen for­mat.

Jonathan Barker, whose “Ama­zon Ad­ven­ture” has shown at the IMAX since April 2016, said the de­ci­sion to re­move the screen will de­prive au­di­ences of im­mer­sive, ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ences.

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