WASHINGTON, DC — Chanting “kick Koch off the board” and lifting signs with slogans like, “climate deniers out of science museums,” a crowd of protesters picketed in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle) just after 12:30pm. Marching in a circle, there were around 60 or 70 activists in attendance, a bit shy of the “hundreds” promised by the protest’s press release. Mere minutes into the event, a middle aged man in a collared shirt and slacks walked by, thrust his arms out in frustration, and said, “Wrong, wrong, wrong … It’s a democracy.” A protestor countered by claiming Koch’s private funds were influencing a public institution, but the man simply sighed and continued walking. That was about as spontaneous as the day would get.
Back in March, the Natural History Museum, a confusingly named mobile museum focused on social justice and climate change, released an open letter to the Smithsonian Institution. It read:
David Koch is a major donor, exhibit sponsor and trustee on the Board of Directors at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History. David Koch’s oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Mr. Koch also funds a large network of climate-change-denying organizations, spending over $67 million since 1997 to fund groups denying climate change science.
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.
Shortly after the letter was published, the Smithsonian released a statement that explained, “Donors and supporters have no influence on the content or presentation of Smithsonian exhibitions, regardless of their private interests,” and “the Smithsonian’s official statement on climate change, based upon many decades of scientific research, points to human activities as a cause of global warming.” The statement also made reference to an October 2, 2014, press release from the Smithsonian, which further elaborated their stance on climate change and the “pressing need” to research it.
But the conflict didn’t end there. The objections were covered by the New York Times, and The National History Museum gathered nearly 430,000 signatures for a petition to oust David Koch from the Smithsonian’s advisory board.
At today’s protest, the group handed boxes containing the signatures to four Smithsonian representatives who agreed to take them to the organization’s Board of Regents, whose meeting was in session during the protest.
When asked about the protestors, Linda St. Thomas, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian, said she understood that the activists wanted the Smithsonian to remove Koch, “which they’re simply not going to do.” She also acknowledged they had voiced concerns about the Human Origins exhibit and have claimed it implies humans can “just adapt to climate change,” but she said, “it does not.”
After picketing for 20 or so minutes, the group marched down to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and set up a PA system and microphone on top of the van that houses their mobile natural history exhibit. Beka Economopoulos, director of The Natural History Museum, climbed on top of the vehicle to expound on the group’s major talking points. In addition to Koch, she also called for the termination of Dr. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, a part-time researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon was the subject of a recent New York Times investigation that found he received over $1 million in funding from fossil-fuel interests that he subsequently failed to disclose.
Once Economopoulos finished, Joe Romm, climate scientist and founder of the publication Climate Progress, climbed up the ladder as well. He’s written complaints about the Smithsonian in the past, but today he harped on the importance of science to the founders of the United States, particularly Thomas Jefferson, and claimed that David Koch stands in stark contrast to American values, calling him “the biggest anti-science funder on the earth.”
Romm lambasted the museum’s Hall of Human Origins, claiming it was full of “misleading” statements and “grotesque distortions.” In his view, the exhibit suggests that “climate change isn’t a big deal, and we’ll evolve our way out of it.” He closed by saying the Smithsonian Foundation is “enabling and legitimizing” the “anti-science” of Koch by allowing him to remain on their Advisory Board.
An unaffiliated activist and former Smithsonian employee, who declined to be named for this story, watched the entirety of the protest with a vague look of dismay. “They’re too demanding … you have to have leverage to make demands,” he noted. The cause was not lost on him. Having been involved in environment-related protests in the past, he said he agreed with the fundamental premise of their argument, but he didn’t think their “preachy” approach would have any productive impact on Koch or the Smithsonian. “It’s a moral issue, yes, but they’re saying it’s ‘the’ moral issue, and it’s not.”
Reverend Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, closed out the event by discussing the links between poverty, social justice, and climate change. Most pointedly, Yearwood recounted how Georgetown University was once funded by slave-run plantation owners. Rather than oppose slavery and defy the “David Kochs of their time,” the university actually determined Christians could be moral and own slaves. Yearwood noted how the university still bears this moral stain on its history, and if the Smithsonian doesn’t oust Koch, they’ll have to live with the burden of moral blemish on their own history.