The nation’s top museums are facing calls to cut ties with billionaire funders who profit from global warming. In an open letter, a coalition of climate scientists, museum experts and environmental groups says science and natural history museums should stop accepting money from fossil fuel corporations and individual donors like the Koch brothers. Koch Industries has extensive energy industry holdings and has funded climate denial. David Koch is a board member of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. One of the most controversial exhibits is a Koch-backed installation at the Smithsonian that promotes the theory that humankind evolved in response to climate change. The letter is the creation of a different kind of museum — the new, mobile Natural History Museum, which seeks to “highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” We are joined by Beka Economopoulos, co-founder and director of the new Natural History Museum, who coordinated the letter to 330 science and natural history museums, and by James Powell, one of the scientists who signed the open letter. Powell is a geochemist, former president of the Franklin Institute and former president and director of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a look at how the nation’s top museums are facing calls to cut ties with billionaire funders who profit from global warming. In an open letter, a coalition of climate scientists, museum experts and environmental groups say science and natural history museums should stop accepting money from fossil fuel corporations and individual donors like the Koch brothers. Koch Industries has extensive energy industry holdings and has funded climate denial. David Koch is a board member of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. One of the most controversial exhibits is a Koch-backed installation at the Smithsonian which promotes the theory that humankind evolved in response to climate change.
The letter sent Tuesday is the creation of a different kind of museum, the new mobile Natural History Museum, which seeks to, quote, “highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature” and “affirm the truth of science.” The letter reads, quote, “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 says.
Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Beka Economopoulos is a co-founder and director of the new mobile Natural History Museum and coordinated the letter sent from Nobel laureates and other scientists to 330 science and natural history museums. And in Santa Barbara, California, James Powell is with us, one of the scientists who signed the open letter. He is a geochemist, former president of the Franklin Institute and a former president and director of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. His new book is called Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth. We invited the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to join us, but they have not responded.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! James Powell, let’s begin with you. Why did you sign this letter?
JAMES POWELL: Well, thank you very much, Amy. It’s good to be with you. I signed the letter because I feel very strongly that the most fundamental obligation of science museums is to get the science right. And when you have on your board someone who has gotten the science wrong and who is a billionaire and is sitting at the table when trustee decisions are made, you at least give the appearance that your exhibit might be tainted and might not be giving the best science. And, in fact, with the Smithsonian exhibit that you talked about, I think that’s not just an appearance, but it’s actually the reality—the notion that we can evolve our way out of global warming. I like to say my grandchildren are already here; they’re present on the planet. They’re not going to evolve by the time they’re my age. What is going to happen is that the world is going to be a much more dangerous place.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were at the—you served at the—what was it? The Los Angeles County Natural History—the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. You were director of it.
JAMES POWELL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Museums need money. What do you tell fellow directors around the country?
JAMES POWELL: Well, that’s right. We are in a real bind. Museums do not have much money of their own. If we want to build a major exhibit, it’s going to cost millions of dollars. We have to secure that money from gifts, from someone. However, I think you have to build a firewall between the donor and the construction and ideas that go into the exhibit. And I take the Smithsonian’s word that they did that. However, if you have a major science denier, not just someone who denies it personally, but who is funding denialism with tens of millions of dollars, you don’t have to have that person sitting at the table with the exhibit designers. It is known what that person thinks. It is known what their beliefs are. So I think if you back it all the way back, you would say you shouldn’t have such a person. You shouldn’t have a science denier on the board of a science museum. It’s a contradiction in terms, and you’re just going to get in trouble, so find the money somewhere else.
AMY GOODMAN: Beka Economopoulos, talk about the group of people who have signed this letter and why you got involved.
BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: It’s a tremendous list of dozens of the world’s most prominent scientists, including several Nobel laureates who have signed this letter. We initiated it as the Natural History Museum, our own Natural History Museum that just launched this fall, because we were very concerned that energy companies and the Koch brothers gain social license and cultural capital from an association with these scientific institutions, while they bankroll climate science disinformation and efforts to block action on climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: So what are you doing now?
BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: So we’re calling on the museum sector—in particular, museums of science and natural history—to cut ties to the fossil fuel industry. That means, one, dismiss climate deniers and oil billionaires from your boards; two, cancel fossil fuel industry sponsorships; and, three, divest from your financial holdings in the fossil fuel industry.
AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the response of museums?
BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: So far, no comment from the largest museums that we’ve called out for having David Koch on their board. However, we’ll say that there’s been a lot of traction within the overall museum sector. The American Alliance of Museums, which is a consortium of all the country’s—or most of the country’s museums, has blogged about this. We’re going to be joining their convention in a few weeks’ time. It’s the world’s largest museum convention. We’ll be exhibiting as the Natural History Museum. And we invite museum professionals who are sympathetic to this effort to get in touch with us. We’d love to hear from you, especially if you work at the New York and D.C. natural history museums.
AMY GOODMAN: Why target museums?
BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: You know, there are more museums in the United States than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. The museum sector represents vital societal infrastructure. They are so relevant for conveying information, for educating the youth and the public. And people have a tremendous amount of faith in the validity of these institutions. And when museums accept these contributions, it undermines the trust that the public place in them. And that, in turn, undermines a trust and faith in science, in general. And so, you know, museums hedge to this notion of authoritative neutrality, as if neutrality were even a thing. Howard Zinn said you can’t be neutral on a moving train. So, fossil fuel companies are driving this train off the end of the Earth. And we don’t have the luxury of time here, so we’re asking museums to, yes, to take a stand, absolutely, to re-evaluate their roles in a time of profound environmental disruption and climate crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: James Powell, it’s not only talking about not having fossil fuel industry fund exhibits, but also calling for these large institutions to divest. There’s a student divestment movement across the country getting institutions to—their educational institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Can you comment on it in the museum world?
JAMES POWELL: Yes, I can. And I was also a college president during the debates over divestment from South African-related stock. If you own stock in a company, you do that because you believe that company is going to succeed, and you’re going to make a profit. You are then a partner with that company. And the way the fossil fuel companies make profits is if they sell more fossil fuels, which produces more carbon dioxide, which makes the train move a little faster, to use Beka’s analogy. So, I’m a very strong believer that colleges, universities and museums should not be invested in fossil fuel companies. It’s not even a good investment, if you look at the future, because the reserves of these companies, which are a major part of their valuation, at some point we’re going to decide these can’t come out of the ground, they have to stay there. And if those companies have not adapted by going to some other form of renewable energy, then—
AMY GOODMAN: James Powell, I want to thank you for being with us.
JAMES POWELL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to end it there—former president of Reed College and Franklin & Marshall and former president of the Franklin Institute and former director of the Los Angeles County Museum—Natural History Museum. And thank you so much to Beka Economopoulos.
BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: And please, folks, go to TheNaturalHistoryMuseum.org.
JAMES POWELL: Thank you. Thank you.