WASHINGTON — Subhankar Banerjee spent a grueling 14 months in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge taking photographs of nuzzling polar bears and slain whales, of graceful icebergs and vibrant Northern Lights, chronicling the remote region in all seasons.
Some of his photos, which have been compiled in a book, found their way to the Smithsonian Institution. It was so impressed that it scheduled a show of his photos in a prime location for special exhibits — next to the soaring rotunda on the first floor of the National Museum of Natural History. Banerjee was working with museum staff members on captions quoting him and famous visitors to the Arctic plain on the region's grandeur.
That was as recently as last month. Just weeks before the exhibit's scheduled opening Friday, the Smithsonian moved it downstairs to a room behind the cafeteria.
What happened? Smithsonian officials say they decided the photos would be displayed better downstairs. Banerjee believes his book, published this month, got caught up in the deadly crosscurrents of Washington politics.
The Bush administration and Alaska's congressional delegation have been vigorously pressing Congress for authority to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic refuge.
Last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stood on the Senate floor in front of an enlargement of a Banerjee photo of a polar bear as she made the case against drilling. She held up his photos, referred to their "breathtaking" beauty and urged a visit to the Smithsonian exhibit.
Within weeks, Banerjee learned his exhibit was moving downstairs, the captions replaced by simple one-line descriptions of the photo subjects. He said he was told by a senior museum official that after Boxer used his book, "there was pressure to even cancel the show, but the show was saved."
"I was not told who applied the pressure or where it came from," said Banerjee, a 35-year-old freelance photographer and former physicist for Boeing Co.
Banerjee said his exhibit traded places with a photo essay of South Korean immigrants that had already opened downstairs.
Banerjee said he had spent a great deal of time in the museum and believed many more people would have seen his photos if they had been exhibited on the first floor.
Randall Kremer, spokesman for the museum, said no pressure had been put on the museum to change the location of the exhibit. He added that the new location was a high-traffic area with good lighting.
"Any changes made were part of the normal review process," Kremer said. "The exhibition is being presented in the way we now decided because we think it's the most effective way to show these photographs."
The decision to change the captions, however, reflected the museum's policy of staying out of politics, Kremer said.
Banerjee, who grew up in India and came to this country after graduate school, survived temperatures of 50 degrees below zero and blinding blizzards while in the Arctic.
The March 20 draft of the exhibit's introduction, written by Banerjee and the Smithsonian's staff, included a quote from former President Carter: "It will be a grand triumph for America if we can preserve the Arctic Refuge in its pure, untrammeled state." By April 3, a new introduction omitted Carter's remark.
Kremer explained that the museum decided against the lengthier captions because "they were a lot more wordy and detailed than we normally prefer for a fine-art photography exhibition, and some of the texts did appear to be bordering on advocacy, which is something we don't do."
Banerjee said he and his publisher decided to go public with their complaints only after his publisher received two letters from the Smithsonian's lawyers. The letters said the Smithsonian Institution's registered trademark had been used in the book jacket without authorization and demanded the publisher insert a correction in every book that had been printed and remove all references to the Smithsonian Institution in future editions.
The Alaska Wilderness League, a conservation advocacy group, distributed copies of Banerjee's book to senators who were wavering on the drilling issue. It also alerted Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the Senate government oversight subcommittee.
Durbin asked the museum for an explanation.
"I don't think these decisions are made by accident," Durbin said in an interview. "I think someone has made a decision that they don't want visitors to the museum to see the reality of the Arctic refuge."
"What saddens me is this was the first-ever documentation of this place," Banerjee said. "This book has so much scientific and educational material, beyond any of the politics. I hope that part does not get lost in the political hoopla."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times