Exhibition and Toxic Tours
by The Natural History Museum with T.E.J.A.S.
Is the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences a museum, or a PR front for the fossil fuel industry? This was the central question of Mining the HMNS, an exhibition by The Natural History Museum that interrogated the symbiotic relationship between the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and its corporate sponsors. The exhibition excavated key narratives and displays in the Houston museum, and highlighted the voices and stories that are excluded–those of the low-income predominantly Latino and African-American fence-line communities along the Houston Ship Channel.
In partnership with T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services), The Natural History Museum co-hosted monthly “Toxic Tours” of East Houston’s petrochemical plants and refineries, and conducted extensive air quality monitoring tests in collaboration with scientists from Texas State University. Situated at the confluence of scientific research, environmental justice, and critical museum practice, the exhibition aimed to model the museum of the future–one that works to mobilize a collective response to the challenges of the Anthropocene.
Slide Show & Video Tour
“Peppers Ghost” Hologram Tours in Mini-Dioramas
Over the months while the exhibition was up, we collaborated with local environmental justice group T.E.J.A.S. and scientists from Texas Southern University on a series of monthly “toxic tours” and a citizen science air quality monitoring study in the neighborhoods abutting the world’s largest petrochemical hub. Dubbed “Operation Dinosaur”, it approximated the conditions of a landmark study conducted by the Houston Chronicle a little over 10 years ago which revealed high concentrations of several cancer-causing chemicals in the air of East Houston’s fence-line communities.
Given that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan–which would have mandated fence-line community monitoring–is in limbo (thanks to a lawsuit led by the state of Texas), it’s our hope this independent study may serve to highlight the need for fence-line monitoring.
Already it seems it has — the Houston Chronicle ran a sympathetic editorial that highlights the influence of fossil fuel companies in Houston and persistent air quality concerns in low-income communities of color living in proximity to industry:
“The exhibit focuses a skeptical and irreverent magnifying glass on the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The provocative question that this exhibit poses is whether the HMNS is a “pr front for the fossil fuel industry?”
“There’s an academic truth in this criticism of fossil-fueled donations – you won’t find much about global warming or benzene pollution in the HMNS’ Weiss Energy Hall.”
“Money can breed influence, even unconsciously. Oil has done a lot of good for Houston, but there is no check big enough to buy someone the right to make risky chemical alterations to air they don’t own and others must breathe. Ten years ago, that was the message from City Hall. We’re waiting to hear it echoed from a new administration.”
The environmental news blog Triple Pundit gave a shout-out to the international movement for #FossilFreeCulture, and applauded our critique of the influence of oil and gas money in science museums:
“Now the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), one of the most visited museums in the U.S., finds itself coming under scrutiny. A coalition of non-profits is suggesting that the HMNS is a front for oil and gas companies. The instigator is The Natural History Museum, a mobile museum that seeks to “highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” Insisting that corporate money has perverted the pursuit of science, the organization that runs The Natural History Museum accuses corporations of funding museums and exhibitions with the ulterior motive to enhance their agenda.”
“Hence this group, which includes the journalist Naomi Klein and co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (a 1985 Nobel Peace Prize Winner), Eric Chivian, is trying to take science back for all of society, not just for the well-funded few.”
About The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is a mobile, pop-up museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature, yet are excluded from traditional natural history museums. The museum’s primary subject of study is the “fossil fuel ecosystem”, characterized by a complex set of interrelated feedback loops encompassing land, energy, politics, society, economics and culture. The museum turns its anthropological gaze on traditional science museums as ideological habitats within this ecosystem.
Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) is a community-based environmental justice organization based in East Houston. T.E.J.A.S. provides community members with the tools necessary to create sustainable, environmentally healthy communities by educating individuals on health concerns and implications arising from environmental pollution, empowering individuals with an understanding of applicable environmental laws and regulations and promoting their enforcement, and offering community building skills and resources for effective community action and greater public participation. T.E.J.A.S.’ goal is to promote environmental protection through education, policy development, community awareness, and legal action. Its guiding principle is that everyone, regardless of race or income, is entitled to live in a clean environment.