All Beka Economopoulos

“We humbly ask permission from all our relatives: our elders, our families, our children, the winged and the insects, the four-legged, the swimmers and all the plant and animal nations, to speak. Our Mother has cried out to us. She is in pain. We are called to answer her cries. Msit No’Kmaq—all my relations!”

—Indigenous prayer

“On the brink of crisis and major global collapse, museums are, and need to be, agents for change.”

—Valine Crist, Haida Nation, at the ICOM NATHIST conference Anthropocene: Natural History Museums in the Age of Humanity

In the summer of 2016, in the middle of brown flatlands on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, a sprawling camp of tepees, tents, and RVs appeared. Members of more than 300 Native Nations and several thousand supporters formed an unprecedented alliance against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which, despite tribal opposition, was set to cut through Sioux territory and across the Missouri River. DAPL risked jeopardizing the primary water source not only for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, but also for 17 million people downstream. 

Standing Rock captured headlines around the world and held the attention of millions. It invoked the horrifying memory of Wounded Knee, where more than a century ago hundreds of Lakota people were massacred by the US Cavalry for protecting their treaty lands from the encroachment of gold prospectors. This time, it felt like maybe if we did something, the outcome could be different. 

In an open letter, more than 1,400 museum directors, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians joined the Standing Rock Sioux in denouncing the company behind DAPL for desecrating ancient burial sites, places of prayer, and other significant cultural artifacts sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people. This letter was initiated by my institution, The Natural History Museum in Brooklyn, New York.

The Natural History Museum was founded in 2014 as both an institutional transformation project and a traveling museum. With decades of experience in both community organizing and exhibition development, we serve as a “skunkworks” for the museum sector—an independent research lab that develops projects that enable museums to try new forms of collaboration and public engagement programming, use their influence, and increase their relevance. 

We believe that to be relevant in this time of environmental crisis, museums must move beyond the ambition to just be sustainable and carbon-neutral. We must also address and support the needs of frontline and fence-line communities that are struggling for a more just and sustainable world for all.

Being environmental stewards within this context means we need to align our practices with the global climate and environmental justice movement. This movement is led by Indigenous communities and born from cultures and bodies of knowledge that are already present—as artifacts, stories, and didactics—in the Native halls of the country’s natural history museums. In the post-Standing Rock era, these objects are charged with new meaning and significance. Through their curation and interpretation, we can connect history to the present—and impart lessons for the future.

‘Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line’

Many American Indian and Alaska Native tribes face an array of health and welfare risks stemming from environmental problems, such as surface and groundwater contamination, illegal dumping, hazardous waste disposal, air pollution, mining waste, and habitat destruction. They are the first to experience the effects of climate change, yet they contribute the least to environmental degradation. Indeed, while Indigenous communities inhabit just 2 percent of the world’s land mass, they steward 80 percent of its biodiversity.

Leaders in the US museum sector have already begun questioning how they can begin to address Indigenous responses to climate change. The theme for the 2017 ICOM NATHIST (the International Council of Museums Committee for Museums and Collections of Natural History) conference was the Anthropocene Era—in which humans are not simply one species in a planetary ecosystem but a force that is modifying all of nature. The conference, at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Pittsburgh, explored how natural history museums can interpret the implications of the Anthropocene for the public.

When The Natural History Museum was asked to participate, we invited a delegation of tribal leaders from across North America to take part in panels, roundtables, and luncheons around the question of how museums can support Native-led climate justice initiatives. We also used the conference to debut at CMNH “Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line,” a three-year traveling exhibition and event series co-created with leaders from the Lummi Nation, a Coast Salish tribe from the Pacific Northwest that has been leading efforts to protect water and land in its region and around the country. At the center of this project is the Totem Pole Journey.

For the last six years, leaders from the Lummi Nation have transported a series of hand-carved totem poles along North American fossil fuel export routes to honor, unite, and empower communities working to protect water, land, and public health from the impacts of coal and oil transport. As the pole travels, it helps build alliances between Native and non-Native communities. In extending the Totem Pole Journey into CMNH, our aim was to engage the museum—and the museum public—as allies on the journey.

The exhibition featured video, audio, and interactive components, as well as the totem pole carved for the 2017 journey. The totem pole was displayed horizontally on a trailer as it traveled across the country, and visitors were invited to touch the pole and explore the stories about the red, black, white, yellow guardians of the Earth carved into its surface. It was paired with a participatory mobile mural painted by more than 140 Native and non-Native community members from cities and reservations along the journey’s route and coordinated by artist Melanie Schambach.

We also exhibited a series of Story Poles, vertically stacked shipping crates displaying objects selected by tribal leaders and community members living along the Totem Pole Journey route. From a sacred pipe used in ceremonies to a sample of coal ash from coal trains that have contaminated the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, the mix of objects in these displays were accompanied by audio interviews that conveyed the personal stories of climate justice and injustice that these items symbolized. Members of more than a dozen Native Nations helped develop the exhibition. 

“Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line” was intentionally placed in dialogue with “We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene,” the CMNH’s major exhibition on the Anthropocene. Within the conversation started by “We Are Nature,” our exhibition highlighted the communities that are working to protect water, land, and our collective future. 

We also wanted to explore how an exhibition about fossil fuels and fossil fuel resistance could be staged in the heart of coal and fracking country, where the environmental impact of fossil fuels continues to be a contentious topic. By centering this project on the totem pole, a cultural artifact that one might expect to find in a museum of natural history, “Kwel’ Hoy” functioned like a Trojan horse, to paraphrase Lummi Tribal Councilman Freddie Lane. It helped us bring the Lummi campaign for a safe and sustainable future into the museum context.

The exhibition at CMNH represents only one stop in an evolving museum exhibition and public programming series that over the next three years will travel to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and other museums. Each exhibition will have the totem pole as its centerpiece but will be customized to include the host museum’s collections, the local Indigenous and frontline communities, and the climate and environmental justice issues that those communities face.

What Can Your Museum Do?

“Kwel’ Hoy” is as much a content-driven exhibition as it is a model for replication. We want to shine a spotlight on the many ways museums can participate in the climate and environmental justice movement, not only as advocates but also as supporters of communities that are leading the charge. Of course, every museum has its own specific mission, expertise, and operational limitations, but even the smallest institutions in the most conservative states can take real steps. Here are two possibilities:

1) Focus on the “just transition.” A common concern we hear from colleagues at peer institutions is that taking on environmental justice concerns in regions where fossil fuels are the bedrock of the local economy can make visitors feel alienated or attacked. What happens to their jobs, their homes, and their local economy when fossil fuels are abolished?

One of the most important concepts advanced by the climate justice movement is the notion of a “just transition” from a dirty energy economy to a clean energy economy. The climate justice framework plots an extensive plan in which nobody—including those currently employed by fossil fuel companies—is left behind. The discourse on just transition can help museums broach this topic with both decision-makers and visitors. Organizations such as Movement Generation offer age-appropriate trainings, workshops, and curricula on such climate justice concerns.

2) Partner with communities. The communities that are leading climate and environmental justice campaigns are using history, tradition, story, song, and distinct iconography in the context of their struggles. As trusted institutions, museums can lend their institutional support to these communities by contextualizing and uplifting their symbols, stories, struggles, and objects through exhibitions and public programs. They can only do this if they reach out, listen to, and work in partnership with the communities they want to support.

At many museums, increasing community engagement is now a top priority. Some, such as the Queens Museum in New York City, have hired full-time community organizers to broker relationships with historically underserved communities. Institutions that are unable to expand their operational capacity can reach out to grassroots networks such as the Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Native Organizers Alliance. The Natural History Museum is also able to facilitate collaborations between museums and communities that meet the needs of the various stakeholders involved.

A museum’s exhibitions, programs, outreach initiatives, and public statements need to underscore that environmental crises are also social crises, and that the climate disruption experienced today is a consequence of the exploitation of land and life everywhere. We need to challenge the perspective that nature is a commodity, and we need to elevate the alternative view that regards all things as relatives rather than resources to be extracted and sold for profit.

At the Totem Pole Blessing ceremony that opened the 2017 ICOM conference on the Anthropocene, Tsleil-Waututh Nation leader Rueben George asked how future generations will view the environmental decisions we have made. Referring to the totem pole, George explained, “This will represent that we did something. That we stood for something. That we said no to money, and we said yes to earth and air and water.”

The Totem Pole Journey has inspired so many to draw a line against the forces pushing us toward extinction. The Lummi and their allies invited museums to join them on the right side of history.

Beka Economopoulos is the director of The Natural History Museum.

“The Right Side of History: How can museums support Native-led climate justice initiatives?” was originally published in Museum (July/August 2018): 31-35.

What is the purpose of a museum? Merely to transmit knowledge or to help shape the world for the common good? That is the crux of a live debate among museum professionals that burst into the open earlier this year. In an open letter that was picked up by news sites around the world (including the Guardian) dozens of top scientists, including several Nobel laureates and senior government officials, made a plea for science museums to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry.

They wrote:

“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.”

The letter was coordinated by our organisation, The Natural History Museum(not the one in London but a US-based institution launched in 2014) and within days, more than 100 members of the scientific community reached out to add their support. Together with this growing list of signatories, we are asking museums of science and natural history to drop climate science deniers from their boards, cancel sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry, and divest financial portfolios from fossil fuels.

Re-creation at the Natural History Museum of a 2009 climate change exhibition at New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), this time with an oil pipeline attributed to Koch Industries, a company co-owned by AMNH board member and exhibit sponsor David Koch. Photograph: NHM

We believe that this stance flows directly from the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics, which 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.”

Many of our colleagues in the museum sector have noted that institutional policy protects sponsors from influencing either administration or programming. We are told that funding is only accepted on the condition that there are no strings attached. Strings, however, need not be visible to make an impact, and self-censorship – however invisible or unquantifiable – is a major factor in every institutional decision. Nobel laureate Eric Chivian recently put it this way: “It is just human nature not to bite the hand that feeds you.”

The Natural History Museum has launched a petition to Kick Koch Off the Board of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.Photograph: NHM

Sponsorships do have an effect at every level, and when a sponsor is known for his anti-science practices, that sponsor circumscribes the very horizon of the possible, not through coercion, but through the invisible threat of withdrawal.

Imagine a major natural history museum that organizes an exhibition about the full range of causes and impacts of climate change, obstacles to action, and solutions/responses – one that directly and forcefully critiques the anti-science practices of its largest sponsor. That might be a corporation such as BP or a private benefactor such as David Koch, whose businesses are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and historical funders of groups that have fostered climate denial. Would this exhibition offer a scientifically accurate educational experience about anthropogenic climate change? Yes. Would it risk jeopardizing the museum’s relationship with its sponsor? We believe that it would. Is the risk worth taking? It is imperative.

In a time of profound environmental disruption, it is not enough for museums to accept the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. We need museums of science and natural history to take a stand, to call out the biggest polluters and obstructionists to action on climate change. Faced with pervasive attempts by the fossil fuel lobby to muzzle scientific research and spread disinformation, countless scientists have stood together to declare that the time for neutrality has long since passed.

Museums, like scientists, have historically maintained a position characterized by museologist Robert Janes as authoritative neutrality. This widely held position affirms that “we must protect our neutrality, lest we fall prey to bias, trendiness or special interest groups.” But as Janes points out, as museums increasingly depend on private-sector sponsorship, their claims to neutrality take on an ideological bent. After all, what are corporations if not special interest groups?

Neutrality is a political category, one that hides from view the alternatives against which it is defined. And the claim to authoritative neutrality is dangerous, precisely because it prevents institutions from seriously re-evaluating their roles in a time of climate crisis. At a time when powerful lobbies representing the interests of the fossil fuel industry seek not only to influence public policy but also buy the next election, we can only see neutrality as another word for resignation. And as the overwhelming majority of climate scientists predict, without taking action, there will be no future, let alone a future for museums.

An activist holds a painting of the Deepwater Horizon disaster outside the Tate Britain in protest over sponsorship of the Tate museums by BP, April 2011. Photograph: Alex Milan Tracy/Corbis

Museums of science and natural history are indispensable public spaces for the transmission of knowledge about the world we live in. They are among the most trusted sources of information. But when these institutions have significant ties to the world’s biggest polluters, or ignore the massive impact of the fossil fuel industry on the continuity of the earth’s many species, we are forced to question whose interests they serve. When museums cozy up to climate deniers and fossil fuel companies, they risk undermining the faith and trust they’ve earned through years of dedicated service.

As sites that both represent and supply basic societal infrastructure, museums of science and natural history are not just necessary; they are worth fighting for. We are urging museums of science and natural history to rise to the challenges of the present. This means presenting exhibitions on climate change that address the role of the fossil fuel lobby and its climate-denial machine in the shaping of nature – exhibitions that take on anthropogenic climate change without excluding the vast asymmetries in the burden of responsibility and the burden of impact.

If there is to be a future for museums, we need to do away with the false promise of authoritative neutrality. We need our museums to function as both educators and yes, as advocates for a sustainable and equitable future. Only then can we equip visitors with the stories and tools they need to truly understand the rapidly changing world, and to shape it for the common good for generations to come.

Launched in September, 2014, The Natural History Museum offers exhibitions, expeditions, educational workshops and public programming. Unlike traditional natural history museums it makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature. This blogpost is an edited version of one that appeared previously on the Centre for the Future of Museums blog. Sign the petition here, or make a donation to support the new museum.

“Museums must take a stand and cut ties to fossil fuels” was originally published in The Guardian (May 7, 2015).