Museums must take a stand and cut ties to fossil fuels
May 12, 2015
Grantee News From: Not an Alternative:
The Guardian , Steve Lyons and Beka Economopoulos
What is the purpose of a museum? Merely to transmit knowledge or to help shape the world for the common good? That is the crux of a live debate among museum professionals that burst into the open earlier this year. In an open letter that was picked up by news sites around the world (including the Guardian) dozens of top scientists, including several Nobel laureates and senior government officials, made a plea for science museums to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry.
“When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge. This corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost.”
The letter was coordinated by our organisation, The Natural History Museum (not the one in London but a US-based institution launched in 2014) and within days, more than 100 members of the scientific community reached out to add their support. Together with this growing list of signatories, we are asking museums of science and natural history to drop climate science deniers from their boards, cancel sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry, and divest financial portfolios from fossil fuels.
We believe that this stance flows directly from the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics, which states:
“It is incumbent on museums to be resources for humankind and in all their activities to foster an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited. It is also incumbent upon them to preserve that inheritance for posterity.”
Many of our colleagues in the museum sector have noted that institutional policy protects sponsors from influencing either administration or programming. We are told that funding is only accepted on the condition that there are no strings attached. Strings, however, need not be visible to make an impact, and self-censorship – however invisible or unquantifiable – is a major factor in every institutional decision. Nobel laureate Eric Chivian recently put it this way: “It is just human nature not to bite the hand that feeds you.”
Sponsorships do have an effect at every level, and when a sponsor is known for his anti-science practices, that sponsor circumscribes the very horizon of the possible, not through coercion, but through the invisible threat of withdrawal.
Imagine a major natural history museum that organizes an exhibition about the full range of causes and impacts of climate change, obstacles to action, and solutions/responses – one that directly and forcefully critiques the anti-science practices of its largest sponsor. That might be a corporation such as BP or a private benefactor such as David Koch, whose businesses are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and historical funders of groups that have fostered climate denial. Would this exhibition offer a scientifically accurate educational experience about anthropogenic climate change? Yes. Would it risk jeopardizing the museum’s relationship with its sponsor? We believe that it would. Is the risk worth taking? It is imperative. More>