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American Museum of Natural History In New York Grappling With A Board Member Dilemma


The American Museum of Natural History in New York is considered one of the world's best at researching and presenting information about the natural world. Now the museum is grappling with a dilemma. What to do about a board member who's donated millions to groups that deny climate change? Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Jonah Busch felt like a kid again when he set foot inside the American Museum of Natural History back in January. He went there a lot as a child. And those visits helped lead him to a career as an environmental economist. The excitement lasted until he got to a fossil exhibition and read a panel about ice ages.

JONAH BUSCH: And it said, there's no reason to think we're not going to go back into another ice age, and humans with their pollution may have an influence on the climate.

KARR: But there is reason to think that no ice age is coming. And we do influence climate, according to the overwhelming consensus of scientists who study the subject. Busch says the sign set off alarm bells because the exhibition in which he saw it was funded by Exxon. The exhibition next door is named for philanthropist David Koch, who's given tens of millions of dollars to groups that deny human activities cause climate change.

BUSCH: So what you might give a pass to as an innocent mistake does start to look more nefarious.

KARR: Busch sent some tweets about the sign and headed off to dinner. By the time he finished, hundreds of people had already joined him in pointing out the error and its apparent provenance to the museum. Hundreds more joined in over the rest of that weekend.

BUSCH: To the museum's credit, they responded very quickly.

KARR: Early the following Monday morning, the American Museum of Natural History announced that it would update the sign, which was created a quarter century ago, to reflect current scientific consensus. Across town in Brooklyn, a collective of climate-change activists took note of the effect of Busch's tweets. Two years ago, the group mounted a campaign to force David Koch from the museum's board. He eventually left when his term expired. In January, as climate scientists discussed the issues Jonah Busch raised, the activists mobilized again to force another funder of climate change denials, Rebekah Mercer, from the museum's board of trustees. Beka Economopoulos runs the activist group, which is somewhat confusingly called the Natural History Museum.

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: At a time when science itself is under attack, the role of trusted institutions of science is more important than ever. Rebekah Mercer's philanthropy undermines the mission and the work of the American Museum of Natural History.

KARR: Nobody is accusing Rebekah Mercer of influencing what the museum exhibits or how it presents information. But trustees are legally required to, among other things, safeguard their institution's finances, human resources and goodwill. Economopoulos says Mercer's presence on the board is damaging that last asset - the museum's reputation.

ECONOMOPOULOS: Museums remain among the most trusted sources of information in society. They see more visitors annually than sporting events and theme parks combined. It doesn't make sense to me to have a leader that spreads science denial - in direct contradiction to the mission of the institution.

KARR: Economopoulos's group persuaded more than 200 scientists to sign an open letter urging the museum's leadership to cut ties with Mercer. Then more than three-quarters of the museum's own tenured curators sent an internal letter to its leadership calling attention to their, quote, "profound concern about Mercer's affiliation with the institution." Curators who spoke to NPR on background to discuss internal matters say they're confident that the museum's president and board chair are taking their concerns seriously. But they're not clear on what happens next. The American Museum of Natural History declined to answer specific questions. It issued a statement acknowledging the controversy and reiterating its commitment to good science. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF WINDMILLS' "MEASURES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.