Scientists Tell Natural History Museums to Shun Billionaire Donor and Climate Change–Denier David Koch

Should science museums be taking funding from fossil fuel interest groups?

David Koch.
David Koch. Photo: AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Marek Szumlas via Shutterstock.

Should the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, be accepting funding from known climate change–denier David Koch? An open letter from 39 scientists is calling on the two museums to cut ties with the billionaire, who has made substantial donations to, and sits on the board of both institutions.

Published by the mobile Natural History Museum, a project from arts collective Not an Alternative, the letter questions how either museum can maintain its scientific integrity when they are accepting support from Koch, who owns oil manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries, and other special interest groups in the fossil fuel industry that seek to obstruct clean energy initiatives and obscure the truth of climate change.

The letter was sent in response to a recently published study by scientist Willie Soon, which received $1.25 million in funding from “the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, American Petroleum Institute and other covert funders,” as per the Natural History Museum. A statement on the museum website describes the study as “junk science denying man-made climate change” that “failed to disclose any funding-related conflicts of interest.”

This is not the first time that Koch’s ties to a major museum have been called into question. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s $65 million David H. Koch Plaza was unveiled in New York in September, the dedication ceremony attracted demonstrators, who staged a play mocking Koch’s conservative politics and misguided scientific beliefs (see Protesters Crash Koch Plaza Opening at the Met).

Later that evening, the NYC Light Brigade, arrived on the scene with the Illuminator, a van with a projector, illuminating the museum facade with the messages “Koch = Climate Chaos” and “The Met: Brought to you by the Tea Party.” The three activists operating the Illuminator were arrested and charged with illegal advertising (see NYPD Detains Activists for Anti-Koch Light Graffiti at the Met).

Hans Haacke also critiqued the Met’s relationship with Koch with his piece The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers, included in his exhibition at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery last fall. A trio of photos of the Met were displayed with oversize $100 bills appearing to pour out of the plaza’s two fountains. .

Koch also lends his name to the the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which the museum’s website describes as “an immersive, interactive journey through 6 million years of scientific evidence for human origins and the stories of survival and extinction in our family tree during times of dramatic climate instability.” A 2010 New Yorker review of the hall noted that “the exhibit makes [climate change] seem part of a natural continuum.”

In addition to publishing the open letter, the Natural History Museum is encouraging others to voice their support of the anti-Koch letter by signing a petition telling science museums to “kick Koch off the board.”

“Energy companies and the Koch brothers gain social license from their association with these scientific institutions,” notes the petition. “It gives them cultural capital and credibility as supporters of science, yet they fund scientists and lobby groups that spread climate science disinformation and block action on climate change.”

The petition and signatures, which currently number over 52,000, will be delivered to the two Natural History Museums on the eve of their annual board meetings.

The full text of the Natural History Museum’s letter follows:

To Museums of Science and Natural History:

As members of the scientific community we devote our lives to understanding the world, and sharing this understanding with the public. We are deeply concerned by the links between museums of science and natural history with those who profit from fossil fuels or fund lobby groups that misrepresent climate science.

Museums are trusted sources of scientific information, some of our most important resources for educating children and shaping public understanding.

The Code of Ethics for Museums, adopted in 1991 by the Board of Directors of the American Alliance of Museums, 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.”

“Museums are grounded in the tradition of public service. They are organized as public trusts, holding their collections and information as a benefit for those they were established to serve…Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability, they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically.”

We are concerned that the integrity of these institutions is compromised by association with special interests who obfuscate climate science, fight environmental regulation, oppose clean energy legislation, and seek to ease limits on industrial pollution.

For example, David Koch is a major donor, exhibit sponsor and trustee on the board of directors at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History. David Koch’s oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Mr. Koch also funds a large network of climate-change-denying organizations, spending over $67 million since 1997 to fund groups denying climate change science.

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.

Drawing on both our scientific expertise and personal care for our planet and people, we believe that the only ethical way forward for our museums is to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation.


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