Saturday, October 3, 2009

An Opinion Piece. Without an Opinion.

It was with surprise and delight that I discovered my former boss, Ellen Futter, had joined the world of blogging with this piece at Huffington Post. I must confess that Huff-Po is not really my cup of tea; the sight (virtual or otherwise) of very wealthy people sitting around earnestly discussing how to make the world a better place always reminds me of "Radical Chic," Tom Wolfe's magnificent skewering of the attempts by New York's social elite to cosy up to the Black Panther Party. Anyway, I was interested to find out what EVF's opinions actually are, since most members of the Museum staff never get to talk to her at all (I, at least, got to spend an uncomfortable 5 minutes with her at a cocktail party a few years ago, where I was horribly aware that instant termination of employment was only a conversational gaffe away).

As it happened, having read and re-read the piece several times, I remain none the wiser. Knowing the Museum as I do, I'm sure that "Ellen's" post was actually written by a committee comprised of the Operations, Government Relations, and Development Departments, in response to an invitation received at least a year ago. It has been carefully honed and crafted, through multiple iterations, to say nothing that might offend the City, the State, the Federal Government, the Trustees, and the Museum's donor base, both corporate and individual. As a result, there's little or nothing of actual substance. The post talks in general terms about the challenges facing humanity, but it doesn't actually define what they are. It says we need to change our ways of working in response to these challenges, but doesn't offer any suggestions as to how we will do this. And it slaps a very thin patina of punctuated equilibrium, dinosaurs, and extinction onto the subject to give it a natural history spin without saying why any of this is relevant.

Ex-employee sour grapes on my part? Maybe - although I'm not the only one. Other people have pointed out on the Museum's Facebook page out that EVF's concerns about climate change might carry more weight if she didn't ride around NYC in a chauffeur-driven car. Or if the Museum's sustainability officer hadn't been an early casualty of the last round of job cuts. For me, I think it's more a sense of frustration that, faced with the opportunity to say something significant, in a forum that actually encourages discussion, the Museum has once again bottled it. Museums are a trusted source of information and this is especially so for big, respected ones that get more than 4 million visitors a year. Museums like AMNH have an enormous potential for shaping public opinion. But to do that, they have to have an opinion themselves and not be afraid to express it.

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