The Natural History Museum


Some back­ground to put the fol­low­ing inter­view with artist and orga­niz­er Beka Economopoulos in con­text:

The Paris COP21 cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions com­plet­ed on Decem­ber 12 as a suc­cess, a fail­ure, or both, depend­ing on one’s cri­te­ria. For the Amer­i­can pub­lic, this puts the ball square­ly back in our court – because our per cap­i­ta emis­sions, while hav­ing lev­eled off (at about 17 tons), are still more than dou­ble China’s (6.6 tons) and ten times that of India (1.6 tons), and most of the work of curbing emis­sions will fall to our three coun­tries. Over the next three or four years, we need to show India in par­tic­u­lar that we can accom­plish major cuts in our per cap­i­ta emis­sions, or there will be lit­tle rea­son for them to take action on our behalf or sac­ri­fice their econ­o­my for the world over­all.

The more ambi­tious lan­guage in the Paris talks, the goal of the 1.5°C lim­it, came from a group led by small island nations that will dis­ap­pear if sea lev­els rise beyond two meters. Their goal also serves New York City well, because our city has about 400,000 peo­ple liv­ing in the 100 year flood plain, in homes that are equal­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the sea.

1.5°C as a tar­get gives us an excuse to talk about what that means. Justin Gillis of the New York Times has an excel­lent brief explain­er. And the best sin­gle pre­sen­ta­tion we’ve seen comes from ener­gy engi­neer Saul Grif­fith in the video above. It’s worth watch­ing through to get a com­plete under­stand­ing of the scope and timetable of our chal­lenge. [Updat­ed here.]

Can we live more effi­cient­ly? We know for sure we can, because peo­ple already do, and peo­ple in the US did even in ear­lier gen­er­a­tions; par­ents, grand­par­ents. But will any­one agree to? And we have to agree, or else…why would India agree? That’s the real nego­ti­a­tion.

A lot of things Amer­i­cans take for grant­ed would be changed to achieve 2°C, or push fur­ther for 1.5°C, and Grif­fith uses exam­ples from his own life as he decar­bonizes his lifestyle ahead of us. The changes are all doable, he’s already doing them. Air trav­el might be once a year, or once every two years, or less. New cars will be elec­tric. Wind tur­bines and pumped stor­age sys­tems would need to be built every­where pos­si­ble, but the net avail­able ener­gy will be low­er. If you poke around on this mas­sive device, you can see some of the rela­tion­ships. Here’s a sim­i­lar but more fun toy for the ener­gy side, set­ting the UK up for a 2°C future.

Our soci­ety as a whole has to decide – or at least enough of us – that we do want a solu­tion, and that we will agree to par­tic­i­pate in it. How can a trans­for­ma­tion of this scale rip­ple across our soci­ety at a rate that is rel­e­vant to a solu­tion? Every cul­tur­al insti­tu­tion needs to become a real­i­ty trans­mit­ter.

Which leads us to the for­ward-think­ing work of Beka Economopoulos and her col­leagues: show­ing that a small group of deter­mined activists can get enor­mous insti­tu­tions to con­front real­i­ty, when their short term inter­est (finan­cial sup­port tied to fos­sil fuels) is direct­ly at odds with their long term inter­est (an intact soci­ety). For exam­ple, to under­stand the true stakes fac­ing New York’s price­less set of muse­ums, see a map of New York City under a 4°C sce­nar­io, con­di­tions that would cause the city itself to shut down. The front end of that kind of change is already under­way in Miami, as report­ed by the New York­er.

Economopoulos inter­viewed here by Ang­ie Koo.

How did you get involved in the fos­sil fuel divest­ment move­ment?

I’m with a col­lec­tive, Not An Alter­na­tive, that works in the inter­sec­tion of art, activism, and the­o­ry, or ped­a­gogy, and we’ve been in oper­a­tion for the last 11 years or so. We launched our first long term, ongo­ing project last year called The Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Muse­um.

We start­ed a new muse­um in order to get inside the muse­um sec­tor, to trans­form it from with­in. Our muse­um does every­thing tra­di­tion­al nat­u­ral his­to­ry muse­ums do. We do exhi­bi­tions, expe­di­tions, edu­ca­tion­al work­shops, and pub­lic pro­gram­ming, but we make a point to high­light the socio-polit­i­cal forces that shape nature that are left out of tra­di­tion­al nat­u­ral his­to­ry muse­ums.

This project knits togeth­er the var­i­ous back­grounds, skills, and inter­ests of the mem­bers of our col­lec­tive. I come out of activism and orga­niz­ing, specif­i­cal­ly with the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment over the last 20 years. My hus­band comes from an art and exhibit design back­ground. Anoth­er co-founder of our col­lec­tive has worked in our country’s largest nat­u­ral his­to­ry and sci­ence muse­um. We were inter­est­ed in mod­el­ing the muse­um of the future, one that has no ties to fos­sil fuel, one that cham­pi­ons bold cli­mate action and equips its vis­i­tors with a full range of sto­ries and tools that they need to under­stand the rapid­ly chang­ing world and shape it for the com­mon good. 

Were there any muse­ums that had already divest­ed or was The Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Muse­um the first to take that stand?

Not that we are aware of. It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that a muse­um divest­ed and didn’t make an announce­ment of it. 

Yet – the divest­ment move­ment is a glob­al move­ment that is intend­ed not to be a deci­sion behind closed doors, but rather a procla­ma­tion that the fos­sil fuel indus­try is jeop­ar­diz­ing the future of life on this plan­et and that in par­tic­u­lar, they are spread­ing cli­mate sci­ence dis­in­for­ma­tion and lob­by­ing to block action on cli­mate change. 

We should not have sci­ence deniers in lead­er­ship posi­tions at sci­ence muse­ums.
So, if you’re going to divest, you should make an announce­ment and be count­ed as among the oth­er insti­tu­tions that are doing so to con­tribute to this glob­al move­ment.

In par­tic­u­lar, the divest­ment move­ment this time last year announced $50 bil­lion in pledges in funds divest­ed from the fos­sil fuel indus­try.

Their goal was to triple that by this time this year – and they have increased it 150-fold: $2.6 tril­lion dol­lars have been pledged in divest­ment. It is prob­a­bly the quick­est grow­ing move­ment we’ve seen to date. Uni­ver­si­ties, munic­i­pal­i­ties, foun­da­tions, phil­an­thropies, and faith-based insti­tu­tions have been divest­ing, but it only makes sense for sci­ence and his­to­ry muse­ums to do the same and to real­ly lead the way in the muse­um sec­tor because this has every­thing to do with their mis­sions.

So what has the gen­er­al respon­se from muse­ums been when they are con­front­ed with the call to divest from fos­sil fuels? Has it been pos­i­tive?

I want to clar­i­fy that we’re not just call­ing on the­se muse­ums to divest their finan­cial hold­ings in the fos­sil fuel indus­try, we’re ask­ing them to refuse fos­sil fuel fund­ing, to can­cel any fos­sil fuel indus­try spon­sor­ships, and if you’re a sci­ence muse­um, to kick cli­mate deniers off your board. We should not have sci­ence deniers in lead­er­ship posi­tions at sci­ence muse­ums.

For that rea­son, this spring we teamed up with 150 of the world’s top sci­en­tists and Nobel Lau­re­ates to release a let­ter call­ing on sci­ence and nat­u­ral his­to­ry muse­ums to cut all ties to fos­sil fuels. In tandem with that, we launched a peti­tion call­ing on the Smith­so­ni­an Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry and the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry, here in New York, to kick David Koch off their boards. Koch is one of the Koch broth­ers, the own­ers of Koch Indus­tries, the sec­ond largest pri­vate­ly held fos­sil fuel com­pa­ny in the world. He has spent $79 mil­lion over the last two decades fund­ing cli­mate sci­ence dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns, and open­ly denies the sci­en­tific evi­dence him­self. So there is a clear con­tra­dic­tion between the pol­i­tics of their patron and board mem­ber and the mis­sion and val­ues of the insti­tu­tions. [David Koch is also the wealth­i­est New York­er, and 6th wealth­i­est indi­vid­u­al in the world. Per­spec­tives on the Koch influ­ence on US action on cli­mate change here, here and here.]

Inside Cli­mate News has cov­ered the respon­se we’ve been get­ting from the muse­um sec­tor. There’s a cou­ple of things to note:

Some insti­tu­tions have respond­ed very pos­i­tive­ly and have imple­ment­ed gift poli­cies refus­ing fos­sil fuel fund­ing and pledged to divest. We’ve seen that from the Cal­i­for­nia Acad­e­my of Sci­ences in San Fran­cis­co, from the Phipps Con­ser­va­to­ry and Botan­i­cal Gar­dens in Pitts­burgh, and from the Aus­tralian Acad­e­my of Sci­ence. Just last week, the Lon­don Sci­ence Muse­um dropped Shell as a spon­sor and also we just learned this week­end that The Field Muse­um in Chicago is divest­ing. So yes, great respon­se in many ways. 

A lot of insti­tu­tions how­ev­er, push back and say two things:

You can’t be neu­tral on a mov­ing train, and his­to­ry is a mov­ing train.
One, there’s a fire­wall between fun­ders and donors or board mem­bers and pro­gram­ming and cura­tion. They have no influ­ence over it. But we have sev­er­al board mem­bers who are for­mer sci­ence and nat­u­ral his­to­ry muse­um direc­tors who have said there is still influ­ence.

Case in point, James Pow­ell is the for­mer direc­tor and pres­i­dent of the Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Muse­um of Los Ange­les County and The Franklin Insti­tute Sci­ence Muse­um in Philadel­phia; he said, “Lis­ten, I’ve been on the oth­er side of the table. Your mul­ti-mil­lion donor doesn’t have to be in a room to influ­ence your deci­sion when you know their pol­i­tics and you don’t want to piss them off. That has an impact.” 

Anoth­er one of our board mem­bers is a Nobel Lau­re­ate sci­en­tist, Eric Chi­vian, and he said, “Those strings need not be vis­i­ble to be attached. It’s the threat of self-cen­sor­ship more so than the threat of cen­sor­ship that we need to be con­cerned about.”

The sec­ond point we’re hear­ing from the­se muse­ums is, “Well, we can’t divest; we can’t do what you’re ask­ing us to do because we’re neu­tral.” It’s this issue of neu­tral­i­ty, or in the muse­um sec­tor it’s writ­ten about as “author­i­ta­tive neu­tral­i­ty,” that becomes this sort of guid­ing prin­ci­ple and it’s delu­sion­al. Our posi­tion is that there is no such thing as neu­tral­i­ty. There is always a cura­to­ri­al point of view and what­ev­er default posi­tion you deem to be objec­tive, is actu­al­ly informed by the sta­tus quo, by the socio-polit­i­cal moment we find our­selves in. There is a politic to it already. 

Even if they refuse to acknowl­edge it.

Exact­ly. So it’s if you make that implic­it or explic­it.

His­to­ri­an Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neu­tral on a mov­ing train.” His­to­ry is a mov­ing train; it’s head­ing in a direc­tion. Right now it is head­ing towards envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse. So sim­ply by stand­ing still and doing noth­ing, we are com­plic­it. Neu­tral­i­ty does not serve us in the mid­st of a cli­mate cri­sis. The Code of Ethics for Muse­ums” says that it is incum­bent on muse­ums to pre­serve the rich and diverse world we’ve inherit­ed for pos­ter­i­ty, to act not only legal­ly, but eth­i­cal­ly, and to take very seri­ous­ly any threat to our institution’s integri­ty.

When our insti­tu­tions cozy up to the world’s biggest pol­luters, take fund­ing from them, and invest in them, we’re forced to ques­tion whose inter­ests are served and it under­mi­nes the integri­ty they have gained through years of ded­i­cat­ed ser­vice. For that rea­son, we are invit­ing the­se muse­ums to align with their mis­sions and to reeval­u­ate their role in times of pro­found envi­ron­men­tal change.

The Natural History Museum traveling exhibit comments on the sponsorship behind AMNH (Ph via Natural History Museum)

Do muse­ums have an eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty to their audi­ence? The Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Museum’s new exhibit con­fronts the spon­sor­ship behind the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry in New York. (Pho­to via Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Muse­um)

What will you be doing in Paris and what do you hope to accom­plish?

We, as an art col­lec­tive, were inspired to start this muse­um, which by the way is not a joke. It is an actu­al muse­um. It’s reg­is­tered with The Amer­i­can Alliance of Muse­ums. We’ve been exhibit­ing and pre­sent­ing on pan­els at all the world’s var­i­ous muse­um con­ven­tions, and we just spoke to hun­dreds of muse­um direc­tors at the Inter­na­tion­al Coun­cil of Muse­ums lead­er­ship con­fer­ence. We’ve been very much work­ing with­in the sec­tor and devel­op­ing exhi­bi­tions, and research, and such. But it was ini­ti­at­ed by an art col­lec­tive and we are stew­ard­ing the muse­um.

We did it because we were inspired by what peers in the UK were doing. There’s a net­work of artists over last sev­er­al years that call them­selves “Lib­er­ate Tate”. They have been call­ing on the Tate muse­ums to drop BP as a spon­sor and they are using the vocab­u­lary of con­tem­po­rary artlike per­for­mance art, oil paint, and suchthe vocab­u­lary of the insti­tu­tion that they’re inter­ven­ing upon. There’s a col­lec­tive of the­ater pro­fes­sion­als called BP or Not BP that has been call­ing on the Roy­al Shake­speare Com­pa­ny to drop BP as a spon­sor and they use gueril­la the­ater to do that. So there are all the­se groups around the world that are using the vocab­u­lary of the insti­tu­tions they’re inter­ven­ing upon.

Muse­ums are lead­ers, and we’re ask­ing them to demon­strate their lead­er­ship.

This bor­rows from this tra­di­tion in art called “insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique.” A rapid­ly grow­ing num­ber of groups around the world are call­ing on our cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions to cut ties to fos­sil fuels. 

So, we got fund­ing to bring folks togeth­er from 8 or 9 countries—Norway, UK, Ire­land, France, Aus­tralia, Brazil, US, Canada—to have our first face-to-face. We are going to have a two day retreat to share lessons learned and to do some strat­e­gy and plan­ning. We’re doing a cou­ple of pub­lic events, pan­el dis­cus­sions and work­shops, and then we’re doing a joint per­for­ma­tive inter­ven­tion at the Lou­vre.

[Our inter­view took place pri­or to the event in Paris; see images from the Lou­vre protest here and here. Top image in this post by Reuters.]

We are call­ing on the Lou­vre to can­cel their spon­sor­ships with Total and Eni, two of the six super-major super oil com­pa­nies in the world. Total is the French State oil com­pa­ny; Eni is the Ital­ian State oil com­pa­ny. By the way, Shell Oil just pulled out of Arc­tic. Every­one cel­e­brat­ed that, but Eni is mov­ing in to take Shell’s place with much more expen­sive drilling rigs. 

Are we shut­ting our bor­ders to cli­mate refugees, or are we real­ly doing some soul search­ing about what it means to be human in this con­text?
This is a grow­ing inter­na­tion­al cul­tur­al move­ment, and we are one man­i­fes­ta­tion of it. We were see­ing what our peers around the world were doing and we real­ly want­ed to kick that off in New York and trans­form the muse­um sec­tor here. We’re doing this not to tar­get muse­ums, but because we love muse­ums. We see them as lead­ers and we’re ask­ing them to demon­strate their lead­er­ship.

There are more muse­ums [and his­tor­i­cal sites] than Star­bucks and McDonald’s com­bined in the Unit­ed States alone. 

Muse­ums see more vis­i­tors annu­al­ly than the entire num­ber of peo­ple that go to sport­ing events and the­me parks com­bined. They’ve got mil­lions of vis­i­tors. They have incred­i­bly robust edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams for tod­dlers on up to adults to seniors. Many muse­ums con­fer aca­d­e­mic degrees; they have degree pro­grams; you can get your PhD from Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry. They’re incred­i­bly pow­er­ful and salient spaces. We would like to see them reeval­u­ate their roles and turn into hubs for con­tem­pla­tion, reflec­tion, edu­ca­tion, and yes, col­lec­tive action.

That’s great and also answers my ques­tion about why we want insti­tu­tions like muse­ums to divest. They play such major roles in soci­ety that hav­ing them be lead­ers in this move­ment is so impor­tant.

Yes. And there is a prece­dent. Over the course of the past cou­ple decades, zoos, aquar­i­ums, and botan­i­cal gar­dens real­ly steered their ships to embrace a con­ser­va­tion mes­sage, infus­ing all their exhibits and pro­gram­ming with con­ser­va­tion mes­sages. They engage in con­ser­va­tion cam­paigns in the field, and they provide on-ramps for their vis­i­tors and mem­bers to take action on con­ser­va­tion cam­paigns. We think it’s about time that sci­ence and nat­u­ral his­to­ry muse­ums do the same for cli­mate change. 

What do you see is the role of art in cli­mate change activism and why is it impor­tant that art has this voice in this move­ment?

There are many ways in which art can advance cli­mate change activism. One, is rais­ing vis­i­bil­i­ty and edu­cat­ing peo­ple. Two, is art is a medi­um that is so great at evok­ing emo­tion and shep­herd­ing peo­ple through emo­tion. Art can help to frame under­stand­ing. It can help to reveal exclu­sions, some­thing we’re very con­cerned with, with this project. 

We’re look­ing at what sto­ries and voic­es are includ­ed in nat­u­ral his­to­ry muse­ums and what are exclud­ed, and why are they exclud­ed. Does it have any­thing to do with cor­po­rate spon­sors? Does it have any­thing to do with work XYZ? We don’t have the lux­u­ry of time with cli­mate change. 

Art can help bring urgen­cy and engage a much broad­er swath of the pub­lic than straight activism or pol­i­cy work. 

The oth­er thing is, I think art asks us what it means to be human and what it means to be human in the time of the Anthro­pocene, in the time of the cli­mate cri­sis. The changes are already here, so while we can work to stem the course of cli­mate change, we also have to ask what our respon­se to it look like. Are we just step­ping on each other’s heads scram­bling to get on the life raft, or are we reach­ing out hands out pulling up our broth­ers and sis­ters? Are we shut­ting our bor­ders to cli­mate refugees, or are we real­ly doing some soul search­ing about what it means to be human in this con­text? Is our respon­se mil­i­taris­tic or human­i­tar­i­an? I think art is real­ly great at rais­ing those ques­tions and pre­sent­ing solu­tions.

And with Paris show­cas­ing so much pub­lic art and per­for­ma­tive art relat­ed to cli­mate change through­out the city as COP21 is hap­pen­ing, it’s great to see how art is adding to the nar­ra­tive. I didn’t think some­thing of that scale would have been pos­si­ble.

I just came back from the Cre­ative Time Sum­mit this week­end which was at the Boys and Girls High School in Bed-Stuy. It was incred­i­bly pow­er­ful and Boots Riley gave the keynote. He’s the rap­per, hip-hop artist from The Coup. He said that mean­ing­ful art, rad­i­cal art, chal­lenges cap­i­tal­ism. He’s going straight to the root and that’s some­thing I think that we can do as artists. We have a lit­tle bit more license than oth­ers to say things that are con­tro­ver­sial, that need to be said, to real­ly inter­ro­gate the roots of prob­lems, not just the sur­face solu­tion. We don’t just dec­o­rate protests or make things pret­ty. We’re real­ly about ques­tion­ing par­a­digms that we find our­selves in. His­tor­i­cal­ly, art has always played that role and made peo­ple a lit­tle uncom­fort­able some­times, but in that process, shake things up and make space for mean­ing­ful trans­for­ma­tion.


More thoughts on Paris and the future from polit­i­cal sci­en­tist David Vic­tor (a pro­po­nent of the suc­cess­ful approach used for diplo­ma­cy at COP21), and from cli­mate sci­en­tist Ken Caldeira.


A cor­rec­tion to this piece: Saul Grif­fith was iden­ti­fied as a ‘Google ener­gy engi­neer;’ he led devel­op­ment of Makani Pow­er (wind ener­gy) with fund­ing from Google X and ARPA-E. Grif­fith has moved on to new projects at his com­pa­ny Oth­er Lab, includ­ing light­weight heliostats for effi­cient solar pow­er sys­tems. Pro­file of Saul Grif­fith in the New York­er. The slides that accom­pa­ny the video at top are avail­able here.

UPDATED 1/21/16: We’re hap­py to report that the Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Museum’s cam­paign to remove David Koch from the board of the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry in New York has suc­cess­ful­ly con­clud­ed: Koch stepped down as report­ed in an announce­ment report­ed in the NYT on 1/20/16. Oth­er cov­er­age: Guardian; Grist; Hyper­al­ler­gic; New York Mag­a­zine.

Saul Grif­fith has updat­ed his talk on ener­gy and infra­struc­ture. His cur­rent thoughts, record­ed at the Long Now Foun­da­tion in Sep­tem­ber, are a bril­liant and com­pre­hen­sive look at what we need to do to solve cli­mate change.