After more than 23 years on the board of trustees at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, David Koch has stepped down. He gave notice at the most recent board meeting on December 9th.
His departure is a victory for the scientists, climate activists, and museum professionals who have been calling for museums to break ties with Koch and other fossil fuel interests. While the pressure generated by this effort may have been a factor, the museum’s official line is that he simply chose not to renew his seat on the board. According to Koch’s spokesperson he elected to leave the post to prioritize other commitments.
Regardless of official explanations, it is undeniable that Koch’s board position was the cause of great controversy over the last year.
Last Spring The Natural History Museum–a new, mobile museum that champions bold climate action–released a letter signed by dozens of the world’s top scientists urging science and natural history museums to cut all ties to fossil fuels. The news grabbed headlines around the world, and subsequently, an additional 120 scientists and senior government officials stepped forward to sign the letter. More than 550,000 people signed a petition urging the American Museum of Natural History to kick David Koch off its board.
The counter-attack was vigorous.
- Within 24 hours of the release of the scientist letter, a lawyer with apparent ties to the Koch brothers filed OPRA requests (similar to FOIA) at public universities where several scientists who signed the letter are employed. The requests called on the universities to turn over all emails in the scientists’ accounts with “Koch” in the subject or body.
- The climate denial coalition CO2 Science organized a counter-letter signed by scientists claiming that atmospheric CO2 is beneficial and is not a pollutant, urging museums to reject the call to cut ties to fossil fuel interests.
Rather than intimidating our scientists, this response from climate denying interests only served to further motivate them.
MUSEUM SECTOR RESPONSE
Since the release of the scientist letter, at least 6 museums have responded by either divesting from fossil fuels, dropping fossil fuel sponsors, or implementing gifts policies that preclude them from taking fossil fuel industry funding:
- California Academy of Sciences (divest + gifts policy)
- Australian Academy of Sciences (divest)
- London Science Museum (end of Shell Oil sponsorship deal)
- Field Museum in Chicago (divest)
- Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh (divest + gifts policy)
This past Fall, The Natural History Museum teamed up with 350.org to launch a new campaign calling on top science and natural history museums to divest from fossil fuels.
We are thrilled that David Koch, a climate denier and top funder of climate science disinformation campaigns (to the tune of $79 million) is no longer in a leadership position at a venerable science museum like the American Museum of Natural History. With this conflict of interest removed, we hope that the AMNH will consider our invitation to demonstrate its leadership by divesting financial holdings from fossil fuels.
While Koch is no longer on the Board of Trustees at the American Museum of Natural History, he is still an Advisory Board member of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
“MUSEUM LIBERATION MOVEMENT” / #FOSSILFREECULTURE
Over the last few years several groups around the world have been working to liberate cultural institutions from ties with the fossil fuel industry. On the occasion of the UN climate talks in Paris this past December they came together for the first time, to share strategies, engage in collaborative long-term planning, and co-organize an intervention at the Louvre museum, which is sponsored by oil companies Total and Eni.
This coalition included the US-based Not an Alternative, The Natural History Museum, G.U.L.F., and Occupy Museums; the UK’s Art Not Oil, BP or not BP?, Liberate Tate, Platform London, Science Unstained, Shell Out Sounds, and UK Tar Sands Network; Stopp Oljesponsing av Norsk Kulturliv from Norway; and others from Brazil, Ireland, Australia, and France.
This new and rapidly growing movement for a #FossilFreeCulture extends the wildly successful global divestment movement into the cultural sphere, calling on cultural institutions to cancel fossil fuel sponsorship contracts, divest financial holdings in the industry, and kick oil executives and climate deniers off their boards.
In the United States alone, there are there are more museums than Starbucks and McDonalds combined, and they see more visitors annually than sporting events and theme parks combined. The American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics states that it is incumbent upon museums to do everything they can to “preserve the rich and diverse world we have inherited for posterity”. It used to be acceptable for tobacco companies to sponsor cultural institutions. That’s no longer the case. We believe it’s a matter of time before the same is true of fossil fuel companies.
David Koch’s departure from the board of the American Museum of Natural History is an important step forward for The Natural History Museum and other groups involved in the rapidly growing #FossilFreeCulture movement that aims to liberate museums and cultural institutions from fossil fuel interests.