Climate change exhibition in 2009 at the California Academy of Sciences (photo by John Loo/Flickr)

Climate change exhibition in 2009 at the California Academy of Sciences (photo by John Loo/Flickr)

In response to environmental groups demanding science and natural history museums cut funding connected with the fossil fuel industry, the executive director of San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences stated that the museum is phasing out such investments.

T-rex by the climate change exhibition at the California Academy of Sciences in 2009 (photo by Nate Kharrl/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

In a letter released last Friday, Executive Director Jonathan Foley explained his stance on the issue, writing that “it seems difficult to reconcile the mission of a public science museum focused on ecology, evolution, and sustainability and the practice of investing in fossil fuels.” He affirmed that he believes “it’s the right thing to do morally, and the right thing to do institutionally. While it may not solve the climate change problem entirely, it is a step in the right direction.” As for the next steps, he added:

As of this summer, we no longer have any direct investments in fossil fuel companies and we have already begun to phase out all oil, gas, and mineral leases on lands with historic mineral rights given to us by donors. In January of this year, the Academy implemented a new institutional gift policy to ensure contributions are consistent with the Academy’s stated mission, purposes, and priorities. Those were the first steps. And we intend to do more.

The next step is to work on our endowment. But it’s a little complicated. Nearly every investment vehicle out there — whether an endowment fund, a pension fund, or nearly everyone’s 401(k) and IRA — is partially invested in fossil fuels, directly or indirectly through index funds, and it can be challenging to sort it all out. The financial world hasn’t figured out a perfect way to do this yet. But I am committed to making improvements in this area.

In the coming months, we are going to work with our Board of Trustees and our financial partners to address this issue and make specific plans for the future.

The statement was released right after and the mobile Natural History Museum jointly launched their “Fossil Free” campaign. It calls for five major American science institutions to divest from fossil fuels: the California Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, and the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Zoë Wong-Weissman of and Beka Economopoulos of the Natural History Museum announced in their own statement that the campaign was timed to precede the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference this December in Paris:

If a few of our big, iconic 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 — just in time for the Paris summit.

Quote by scientist Wallace Broecker on view at the California Academy of Sciences in 2008 (photo by Lisa Brewster/Flickr)

The Natural History Museum, created by arts collective Not an Alternative, has been active this year in encouraging public attention to fossil fuel-connected funding in science and natural history museums, as well as the monetary support from those who also back climate change denial groups. In March, an open letter signed by 39 scientists asking for museums to cut ties was directed in particular at David Koch and his funding of dinosaur galleries in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. Following the letter, the Smithsonian released a statement that their donors “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.”

Green roof at the California Academy of Sciences (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In June, protestors demonstrated in front of the Smithsonian Institution Castle with signs again singling out Koch and these divestment concerns. It is not easy for a major museum to totally disengage with fossil fuel funding, such as with the tens of millions given by Koch to the two natural history museums. That’s why the California Academy of Sciences decision, although not a formal divestment policy, is a major move for the institution, and may signal a growing awareness of the presence of these private interests in science museums.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...