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, 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.
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