Museums Challenged to Sever Ties with Climate Deniers

Claire Arkin & John Tarleton Nov 11, 2015

In the past decade David Koch has poured vast sums of money into some of New York’s most prominent cultural institutions — $100 million to renovate and rename the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, $65 million for the David H. Koch Plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and $20 million for the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History.

Since 1997, Koch, who heads the oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries, has also provided at least $79 million in funding to groups that deny climate change and thwart government policies that would address it, according to Greenpeace.

His largesse is a particularly striking example of the money poured into cultural and scientific institutions by the oil and gas industry. 

In Europe, BP sponsors four major arts institutions in the United Kingdom — the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Royal Portrait Gallery and the Tate; the Italian oil giant Eni is a main corporate partner of the Louvre; and Shell was a sponsor of a climate change exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

This kind of financial support garners a lot of love from its beneficiaries. Daniel Brodsky, chair of the Met, has hailed Koch for “his vision and generosity.” Critics, meanwhile, say that this kind of giving is little more than “greenwashing” and have started a multi-national campaign to pressure scientific and cultural institutions to sever their financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

“It’s strategic marketing, that’s why most [fossil fuel companies] line up for museum sponsorships — because it makes them look good in the public eye,” said Robert Janes, author of Museums in a Troubled World and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship.

In September, a coalition of groups that includes the Natural History Museum, Art Not Oil and BP or Not BP? launched a campaign urging arts and cultural institutions and individual cultural agents to sign a pledge refusing to promote fossil fuel interests in their artistic and business practices by divesting from fossil fuels, refusing fossil fuel sponsorship and kicking fossil fuel executives off their boards. The Fossil Funds Free pledge now has over 300 signers, including playwright Caryl Churchill, artist and composer Jem Finer and comedian Francesca Martinez.

Most of the groups that have signed the appeal so far are smaller, progressive institutions that were never likely to gain support from fossil fuel corporations. However, for campaign organizers, the early signers of the pledge provide a baseline from which to pursue larger, more prominent organizations to become signatories. 

This initiative follows on the heels of an open letter published in March by the Natural History Museum calling on natural history and science museums to sever their ties to the fossil fuel industry. It was signed by more than 100 climate scientists and received widespread media attention.

“You shouldn’t have a science denier on the board of a science museum. It’s a contradiction in terms,” James Powell, former president of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, told Democracy Now!

The appeal to museums to steer clear of fossil fuel funding comes at a time when budget cuts to arts and science funding in the United States have left museums feeling more pressure to tap private sector funding streams. According to a report by the American Alliance of Museums, in 2012 more than 67 percent of museums felt economic stress, yet only 14 percent reported increases in government support, versus 35 percent who reported decreases in government support. 

Nonetheless, says Powell, citing the debates about the South Africa divestment movement of the 1980s, “there is a right side and a wrong side, and if I were president at one of these institutions today, I would be arguing that my institution needed to get on the right side of this issue.”

While climate justice activists are busy trying to get fossil fuel companies out of museums, they are also developing innovative ways to bring their ideas into museums. Launched in September 2014, the mobile Natural History Museum is modeling what the role of a science museum can be when unbounded by corporate sponsorship and the strings that come attached with it.

Its exhibitions — an iconic polar bear roaming amid the detritus of industrial civilization, a feedback loop of clean water and water polluted by Koch Industries circulating between two tanks and a water fountain — highlight the sociopolitical forces that shape nature in a way rarely seen at a conventional museum. 

The Natural History Museum’s co-founder and director Beka Economopoulos has made presentations in the past year at the annual conventions of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers. Now in the works is a new fossil fuel exhibition that will explain the fossil fuel ecosystem in the United States, which will debut in Houston in the spring. 

With more museums in the United States than Starbucks and McDonalds combined, Economopoulos sees an opportunity to make a major cultural impact if museums break with the “authoritative neutrality” that she says has defined their aesthetic for generations. 

“They see hundreds of thousands, even millions, of visitors a year, they’re key spaces for bridging science to the public and educating people,” Economopoulos said. “Imagine if this sector, these museums, became hubs for organizing and for communities feeling the brunt of the [climate] crisis to go and find solace and find solidarity.”

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