Thursday, November 10, 2011


A few days ago, I was hanging around in the great hall of London's Natural History Museum, considering their cast of Dipolodocus carnegii, which is the focus a new fundraising effort to renovate the hall. It's called "I Love Dippy," because apparently that's what generations of visitors to the Museum have affectionately called the skeleton. I've been going there for at least 40 years, and it's the first time I've ever heard it called that, which leads me to believe that the sobriquet was dreamt up by the NHM marketing department, but maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon. However, to its credit, the captioning associated with the appeal made it very clear that "Dippy" (ugh) is not actually a "real" skeleton, but a cast donated by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Despite the fact that Carnegie's name is on the specimen, I doubt that most visitors to NHM know anything at all about him, despite the fact that he was a major philanthropist, who gave away around $380 million of his personal fortune (which would probably be worth around $5 billion today) and has his name on, among other things, two museums, a university, a medal for children's books, two towns, a street in Belgrade, and a species of cactus. Being a donor is a thankless task.

I had Carnegie in mind after my return to the States, when there was an announcement on Facebook that the Occupy Wall Street movement was about to invade the dinosaur galleries of AMNH. Many gallons of editorial ink have been devoted to discussing the aims of OWS, and frankly I'm still none the wiser. They seem to have a lot in common with the Tea Party (although both movements vehemently deny this) in that they are expressions of volcanic anger directed at everything to do with "The Man." Personally, I think that both the Tea Party and OWS are actually manifestations of the same "Man," who is pulling the strings behind the scenes, but then I'm paranoid and enjoy conspiracy theories. There have been rumbles for a few weeks that OWS was considering targetting New York museums, on the basis that they are "elitist." If that's not evidence of an OWS/Tea Party link, I don't know what is. Teabaggers are notorious for their suspicion/hatred of "elites." The AMNH, which is (at least superficially) the least elitist of the big Manhattan museums, probably thought it was safe. But no.

However, before we get into the whys and wherefores of this, I am pleased to offer you an eyewitness account of the great protest (see above for a picture):

There was only about 12 of them, wearing little dino noses, and they just stood around talking.... At the end they walked over to the ceratopsians and one of them did a bit of a mystical dance. They were a bit late getting there, and I was wondering if they'd been held up by visitor services asking them if they wanted tickets to the IMAX. There were about 25-30 AMNH staff watching and even more Security.

So hardly the storming of the Bastille. But why does OWS have such a downer on dinosaurs? The answer lies in a donation made to the Museum some years ago by David H. Koch. The name may not be familiar, but Koch is the 4th richest man in America (according Forbes Magazine) and a lightning rod for OWS, which sees him (and his brother Charles) as bankrolling the libertarian right, attacking the Obama administration, and generally asserting undue influence on the political process by virtue of their personal wealth. The Kochs have been the targets of much bigger (and more violent) protests than the one at AMNH, but the fact that the dinosaurs live in the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing (named in recognition of Koch's $20 million gift the the Museum) apparently made them a legitimate focus for a discussion of the "evils of Koch" as my source described the protestors' rantings.

All of this made me think again about Andrew Carnegie. Like Carnegie, Koch is a heavyweight philanthropist; his foundation has donated or pledged over $750 million to medical research, science, education, and the arts. Like Carnegie, who devoted much of his wealth to promoting anti-imperialism and world peace, there is much to admire in Koch's views, which have encompassed support for gay marriage and stem cell research, opposition to the Iraq War, and (back in the eighties) decriminalization of recreational drugs. And unlike Carnegie, whose company unleashed the Pinkertons on striking steelworkers, leading to a riot in which ten people died and hundreds were injured, Koch's support of the free market doesn't extend to physical force. When we look at the dinosaurs in the Carnegie Museum, we don't think of the spilled blood of the workers at Homestead. So should we care about the Koch Dinosaur Hall?

Actually, I think we should, and here's why. Unlike Carnegie, whose interest in science didn't really extend beyond a general support of evolution, David Koch has a very definite agenda related to climate change. He has expressed skepticism about anthropogenic global warming; according to a recent article in the New Yorker, the Kochs have donated funding to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, "underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups." The New Yorker article also cited a UMASS Amherst report that identified Koch Industries as one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. The content of the article has not gone unchallenged by Koch Industries and others (see here for a counterview), but in a sense the specific rights and wrongs are not important. It's the mere existence of controversy that's a problem.

Museums like AMNH are in a unique position to address questions of climate change, and to bring the results of this work to the attention of the public. Indeed, AMNH has already produced an exhibit on the subject, online educational material like this kids' activity, and taught courses. So it can hardly be accused of soft-peddling the issue. But in the current, toxic political environment, any association can - and probably will - be placed under intense scrutiny. Was a particular statement slanted a particular way to avoid giving offense? Or was it over-emphasized to avoid a perception of bias? And suddenly, an issue has been created where none actually existed. This has already happened at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, where the human origins exhibit (also named for Koch, in recognition of a $15 million gift) was criticized for downplaying the significance of - you guessed it - human-caused global warming.

All of which goes to demonstrate the extraordinarily narrow and twisting path that museums are forced to tread. On the one hand, as public funding is slashed, they become more and more dependent on the generosity of donors like David Koch to support their research and education programs. At the same time, they have to be protective of their most precious resource, which is public trust. A 2008 survey by IMLS showed that libraries and museums rank higher in trustworthiness than all other information sources including government, commercial, and private Web sites. Trust is more fragile than any artifact in our collections, and once lost is very difficult to get back.

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