Many museums, fearing controversy, omit human-driven warming
Museums tiptoe around climate change
The Dallas Morning News, June 14, 2014
Visitors to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science can stand beside an enormous rotating drill bit, take a virtual ride down a fracking well and run their fingers along the smooth, dark surface of the Barnett Shale, the natural gas-rich rock that has fueled Texas’ energy boom.
But as several reviews have pointed out, the Perot Museum makes only a few subtle references to one of the most pressing issues in science: how human activities, primarily emissions from coal, oil and gas plants, are contributing to a rapid warming of the planet.
“Some [of the museum’s] choices are scientifically questionable,” wrote James S. Russell for Bloomberg. “In displays on water and weather I could find no consideration of climate change — the defining natural-science challenge of our time.”
Museums across the country face challenges in presenting climate change to the public at a time when the issue has become politically fraught.
A series of interviews with museum experts revealed that many factors stand in the way of an institution’s complete and accurate portrayal of global warming: the difficulty of presenting a complex subject in a clear, engaging way; the rapid pace of new findings about the effects of climate change vs. the amount of time needed to design exhibition materials; and a desire to avoid stirring up controversy with donors, visitors and political representatives.
The Dallas Morning News has learned that the Perot Museum failed to display a panel that spelled out the link between burning fossil fuels, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a warming planet.
The 4-by-2.5-foot panel had been designed to hang in its earth sciences hall but was lost in the bustle leading up to the museum’s opening in December 2012, said Steve Hinkley, vice president of programs at the Perot Museum. He did not learn of the panel’s omission until a reporter began inquiring about it earlier this month.
The museum has ordered a temporary panel to hang in its place until a new one can be manufactured. “Our installation period was very rapid,” said Hinkley. “So, for something to not have been installed is not totally out of the realm of possibility.” He has since learned that the panel was incorrectly designed to fit its space, which may have contributed to its being left out.
The missing panel, titled “Changing Climate,” states that “Volcanic eruptions and burning fossil fuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. This warms the Earth and can cause sea levels to rise and climates to change.”
A caption below a photo of what looks like a smokestack added: “Humans have altered Earth’s climate by burning coal and other fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide,” according to an image of the panel provided by the Perot Museum and by the panel’s designer.
The hall in which the panel was supposed to hang talks about the earth’s geology, air and water and how they interact. Visitors can stand on an earthquake machine and touch a tornado. Climate change was not the hall’s main focus. “Before we can talk about climate change, you need to give visitors an understanding of what the climate is,” Hinkley said.
The hall is named for The Rees-Jones Foundation, which was started by Chief Oil & Gas founder, president and CEO Trevor Rees-Jones and his wife, Jan.
The philanthropy has given more than $25 million to the museum. Locally based ExxonMobil, whose CEO recently questioned the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, gave more than $1 million to the museum.
Forrest Hoglund, a longtime natural gas executive who is on the museum’s board and led the $185 million campaign to build it, said the subject is too complex and fast-changing to tackle in a permanent exhibit. “Climate’s always changing, and always has,” he said. “So there’s a lot of information out there and a lot of misinformation.”
But Hinkley said neither the museum’s donors nor its board of directors has any say in museum content. He added that none has ever expressed opposition to the display of information about climate change.
The panel’s omission came to light during a June 4 interview with Deborah Olstein of Amaze Design, which received $13 million from the Perot Museum to design five halls, including ones on dinosaurs, space and biodiversity. Asked about the parts of the exhibit that directly address climate change, Olstein sent an example of text that was not in the exhibit. Amaze notified Hinkley of the omission the following day.
It is rare for portions of exhibitions to go missing, said two experts familiar with science museums. Exhibition directors are typically fastidious about conducting walk-throughs and matching up plans with installations to make sure nothing has gone awry. If errors occur, staffers typically catch and correct them promptly, they said.
While international teams of scientists agreed long ago that human activity is the primary cause of current warming, members of the public and some politicians have been slow to embrace the findings.
“It is about the most politically controversial topic that we can take on right now,” said Paul Martin, senior vice president for science learning at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.
Some museums admit they’re reluctant to display the topic prominently. “We try to avoid saying things that are not necessary to be said,” said Carolyn Sumners, vice president for astronomy and the physical sciences at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
The museum doesn’t use the term “global warming” except in a historical context, such as the natural warming that took place during the time of the dinosaurs.
Visitors are just as unlikely to find overt references to evolution. “We don’t need people to come in here and reject us,” Sumners said. The museum does have an extensive display about human origins and human ancestors — a subtle approach that one might call “just the artifacts.”
Such displays are more likely to encourage museumgoers with set belief systems to linger long enough to learn something new, she said.
Louise Bradshaw, director of education at the St. Louis Zoo, who has given talks about navigating politically controversial subjects, said several museums use a similar tack. “Sometimes when you put the two words [global warming] together, it creates a flash point that gets distracting,” she said. “There are other ways to get there without picking a fight.”
How museums present climate change can depend on the politics of the region in which they are located and on where their donations come from, said Douglas Jones, president of the Association of Science Museum Directors and director of the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“They are local organizations that are owned by their communities, and they are different depending upon what community they sit in, said Martin of the St. Paul museum.
Yet museums serve a vital purpose in communicating science to the general public. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication says museums are one of the few places where adults can interact with science throughout their lives.
In 2010, his group surveyed visitors to science museums about their knowledge of global warming. He found that while frequent and occasional visitors were generally better informed about climate change than nonvisitors, they still had striking gaps in their knowledge.
But 73 percent of museum visitors said that they would like to learn more about climate change and that they trusted informal science institutions more than any other source to provide that information.
The results, says Leiserowitz, show that museums need not fear a public backlash if they tackle the subject. “The fact that many [museums] were being intimidated into silence was doing a big disservice to many visitors, who were coming to them as a trusted source,” he said.
Partly in response to that study, a group of museums, zoos and aquariums has started working together to improve staff understanding of climate science and employees’ ability to communicate it.
Led by Boston’s New England Aquarium and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the collaboration, known as the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, has brought together 70 institutions in 25 states and is growing.
John Anderson, director of education at the aquarium, says the project’s goal is to cut through the heated rhetoric about climate change. “The mission is to change the public discourse and create a more positive, more engaging conversation,” he said.
Anderson’s colleagues now give short talks connecting the aquarium’s central exhibit about coral reefs with information about ocean acidification — the result of carbon dioxide building up in the oceans that is a major threat to marine life.
At meetings, staffers compare notes and share tips for talking with visitors. Debbi Stone of The Florida Aquarium in Tampa said she’s learned to avoid engaging in lengthy arguments with people who do not believe climate change is real.
“There’s nothing I can say and do in five or 10 minutes that will radically change their minds,” she said. “So we focus on behaviors and practices that are good for the environment.”
Making a statement
Several museums have found it helpful to post statements about climate change on their websites.
The Science Museum of Minnesota’s site explains that climate change is “a fundamental element of scientific literacy and critical thinking.” The statement continues: “While the understanding of the drivers and consequences of climate change will continue to advance with additional research, the fundamental premise remains sound that human life has altered the atmosphere and is one of the causes of climate change.”
The St. Louis Zoo and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have posted similar position statements. Bradshaw of the St. Louis Zoo says it has helped boost her staff members’ confidence and given them new focus.
“It says, ‘This is who we are; this is what we’re about,’” she says. “It has been fabulous.”
Most museums are cautious about overwhelming their visitors with information that is too complex or too distressing.
“Science centers are designed to be informative and fun,” said Bud Rock, CEO of the Association of Science-Technology Centers. That’s one reason why some subjects, like dinosaurs and space, make it into exhibit halls more often than others, including climate change.
The Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul leavens sobering environmental data with hopeful messages. Its “Future Earth” hall explains that “the planet is changing at a faster rate than anything that’s been recorded through the geological record, other than a catastrophic event, like the meteor that took out dinosaurs,” said Martin.
But instead of presenting it as “this bummer story,” he said, the museum frames climate change as a challenge that humans can adapt to with creativity and innovation.
At the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, Calif., visitors can examine ancient ice and mud cores to learn how scientists study climate change and how they know that what is happening now is caused by human activity. They can also use computers to design a clean-energy vehicle and find other solutions to stave off global warming.
Many institutions prefer to insert brief references to global warming in exhibits that focus on other subjects, rather than devoting a single hall to the issue. The Florida Museum of Natural History recently hosted an exhibition about the science of surfing that addressed the effects of sea level rise and coastal erosion on catching a wave.
Some, including the Perot Museum, prefer to address it through temporary exhibitions, speaker series and school programming. “There’s a need to refresh and update this topic, because it’s a very dynamic area of work,” said Michael Novacek, senior vice president and provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which has designed and hosted several traveling exhibits on the subject.
Dealing with donors
Most museums have strict policies against allowing donors to influence content, and the vast majority of donors have no interest in doing so.
Anne Haskel, who served as the Perot Museum’s chief development and public affairs officer until the summer of 2009 and previously worked at The Field Museum in Chicago and at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, said that no company, foundation or individual she has worked with in Texas has ever asked to be involved in content decisions.
Van Romans, president of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, allows donors to review his exhibits before they open to the public.
Like the Perot, the Fort Worth museum hosts a large energy hall and scant references to climate change. The museum’s donors “are certainly courteous, and I want to be very courteous and good to our funders who are in the energy business,” Romans said. He added: “Do they tell me every inch of every piece of information in every exhibit? No. But they deserve to be shown what we’re going to exhibit, absolutely.”
Romans added that the museum is in the process of rethinking all of its exhibition halls and is working with scientists to include more information about climate change.
The Perot Museum, too, is in close touch with area scientists. Among them are seismologists who study the possible link between earthquakes in Azle and injection wells that hold wastewater from oil and gas development.
Hinkley said the museum hopes to be one of the first places where researchers present their latest findings on the subject. “We really don’t shy away from controversial ideas,” he said.
But even the panel that the Perot is reinstating plays down the effects of human activity on climate patterns, say some scientists.
It suggests that the burning of fossil fuels and volcanic eruptions are equally responsible for global warming, when “humans now are emitting 100 times as much carbon dioxide as volcanoes are, so it’s not even close,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station.
He added that many museums stress the climate’s natural variability in order to avoid controversy. Natural variability is a factor, but scientists agree that humans bear most of the responsibility for present-day climatic shifts.
“My sense is that this is a common approach,” Dessler said. “The museums say, ‘We can’t not talk about humans, but let’s try to talk about them as little as possible.’”