The Smithsonian Narrowly Interprets “Why”

May 22, 2007

Today I saw an AP story about a former administrator for the National Museum of Natural History who is accusing the Smithsonian of softening the language and presentation of an exhibit on climate change. The administrator, who resigned last fall, said the alterations came not out of direct pressure, but out of a general sense of concern over losing government funding. Of course, Smithsonian officials and the White House denied any political influence over the exhibit.

The exhibit is rather bizarrely and obviously obliquely titled “Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely”. The Web site indicates a narrow focus on neutral observation of what’s happening. Not even a why — well, one why, with the answer:

Arctic Meltdown
Arctic ice and snow have been shrinking. And that means our planet’s air conditioning system may be in trouble. Why?

The light color of snow and ice reflects most of the Sun’s energy back into space, rather than being absorbed by the dark color of land and open water. That is one reason the Arctic’s cold is so extreme—and our planet does not overheat

But with less ice cover, the ocean and the land warm up, causing more ice to melt, further warming the planet.

Sure, that’s a why, like saying gas prices are high because oil is expensive. Not quite the answer I was expecting.

It reminded me of my eye-opening, depressing experience attending another exhibit at the Smithsonian 3 years ago. I wrote about the exhibit and the related book on Amazon:

Beautiful book, sad exhibition, May 5, 2004
Reviewer: A reader

I bought this book because there was no other way to understand the photos that were on display at the Museum of Natural History. I was not alone; several people walked around Banerjee’s exhibition with their books in hand. The curator had removed all descriptive labels, and the introductory plaque emphasized how small the Arctic refuge is compared to other such reserves throughout the country. The photos were mounted in a corridor leading to an elevator. It was poorly lit, and crowded with people passing through. It was in the back of the building, and hard to find. It was a startling contrast to the Eliot Porter exhibition in one of the main exhibition halls above the ground floor. That exhibition was well designed, well described, and included copies of books like “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, hardly a neutral text. The only message I could take away was that environmentalism is “safe” to the Smithsonian curators only when it’s at least 30 or 40 years old.

The treatment of Banerjee’s photos was so troublesome that Congress held hearings on the matter. But no news report could compare to the feeling of being there, near the elevator.

I took the book home with me, trying to understand whether or not the poor installation was due to poor material or to poor museum administration. Banerjee’s photos, and the stories and writings around the photos, are greatly compelling. The story of how hard he worked to get those photos, and of how in the process, he became a better photographer, stood out to me. I highly recommend the book, but I hope I have helped some enthusiasts know just how controversial the notion of natural beauty can be, and how the Smithsonian does play politics. Apparently, reading Banerjee’s book can be considered an act of protest.


One Response to “The Smithsonian Narrowly Interprets “Why””

  1. John Says:

    Conspiracy theorists might like to note that Dick Cheney is on the Smithsonian Board of Regents – not that this duty appears to be taking up a lot of his time:

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