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At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "Fossils belong in museums," says the new campaign, "not in their investment funds." (Photo: Don DeBold/flickr/cc)

New Divestment Campaign Calls on Natural History Museums to Wake Up on Climate

'The climate crisis calls for leaders who are willing to do more than observe and represent history—it calls for leaders who are ready to help make it.'

Deirdre Fulton

If museums are meant to preserve natural history, why do they invest in companies whose activities are making nature history?

So asks a new campaign launched Friday, which singles out five influential U.S. science and natural history institutions, calling on them to demonstrate their leadership by divesting from fossil fuels and disassociating with climate deniers. 

"In the face of climate catastrophe, there is no more neutral ground."
—Jenny Marienau, 350.org

"The climate crisis calls for leaders who are willing to do more than observe and represent history—it calls for leaders who are ready to help make it," said Beka Economopoulos, co-founder of the Natural History Museum, a new mobile museum that champions bold climate action and a partner with 350.org in the 'Keep it in the Museum' campaign. "Museums of science and natural history can be those leaders."

"Museums are key institutions where the general public, especially young people, learn about science and the natural world," she continued. "Museums understand the urgent threat of disruptive climate change—so why do they invest in an industry whose activities virtually guarantee it?"

The divestment call builds on an open letter, signed by about 150 of the world's top scientists and released in March by the Natural History Museum, which decried "the links between museums of science and natural history with those who profit from fossil fuels or fund lobby groups that misrepresent climate science."

Citing the American Alliance of Museums' Code of Ethics—which states that museums "must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence"—that letter expressed concern "that the integrity of these institutions is compromised by association with special interests who obfuscate climate science, fight environmental regulation, oppose clean energy legislation, and seek to ease limits on industrial pollution."

It continued:

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.

Drawing on both our scientific expertise and personal care for our planet and people, we believe that the only ethical way forward for our museums is to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation.

Now, inspired by that call, 350.org is lending its voice and grassroots momentum to the effort.

"In the face of climate catastrophe, there is no more neutral ground," Jenny Marienau, U.S. divestment manager at 350.org, declared on Friday. "Inaction is a choice."

"The passivity and self-imposed neutrality of museums are inadvertently abetting environmental destruction."
—Robert Janes, Museum Management and Curatorship

"It would seem the museum community is sleepwalking into the future," charged Robert R. Janes, an archaeologist and editor-in-chief emeritus of Museum Management and Curatorship. "The climate crisis is a dire wake up call."

Janes, who formerly served as president and CEO of Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, added: "The passivity and self-imposed neutrality of museums are inadvertently abetting environmental destruction. Museums are grounded in a sense of place, they're committed to a sense of stewardship and they're universally respected as social institutions. There is a role for museums as agents of change and forces for good. Museums must chart a path to sustainability that will preserve and use our irreplaceable cultural legacy."

To that end, the Keep it in the Museum campaign is currently focused on five specific institutions: the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum in Chicago, the California Academy of Sciences, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the Natural History Museum of Utah.

"Each of these institutions has made statements, or signed accords, or otherwise demonstrated their concern about anthropogenic climate change," Economopoulos told Common Dreams. "In this way, they have shown some level of leadership that we believe is undermined by their investments in the very industry that is driving the climate crisis."

More than 250 universities, cities, faith communities, and other institutions have already joined the growing divestment movement. This campaign hopes to start a new wave.

"We chose these institutions because we believe few of our big, iconic and environmentally committed museums were to divest, it would set a powerful precedent for a whole new sector of institutions around the world to step up and divest too," Economopoulos said. "This isn't a 'villain' campaign—we're looking for heroes."


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