Selecting trustees for your prestigious New York cultural board would seem an easy enough process. Start with upper-crust old money — your Roosevelts, Hearsts, Ziffs — toss in a few local celebrities to spice up the uptown soirees — say, Tina Fey and Tom Brokaw — and fill out the rest of the roster with blue bloods willing to shell out six figures for the privilege of an oversight role. So long as your power set isn’t tasked with voting on any drastic cost-cutting measures, and everyone agrees to stay mum about the abysmal diversity rates, voilà, that’s basically it.
Oh, and be sure to screen out any trustees who’ve devoted their life’s work to undermining the fundamental goals of your institution.
Over at the American Museum of Natural History, whose 41 board seats are among the city gentry’s most coveted social prizes, it’s that last step that seems to present some problems. Two years after the world’s top scientists mounted a successful campaign to unseat billionaire oil magnate David Koch from his longtime trustee position, the museum is again taking heat for allowing another titan of climate change propaganda a seat on its board. This time around, it’s New York hedge fund heiress Rebekah Mercer, whose extensive influence-purchasing has earned her a key position of power within Trump’s GOP. Notoriously press-averse, she made news this week for initiating Steve Bannon’s departure from Breitbart, the site that the Mercer Family Foundation, which she controls, has given at least $10 million to.
Though Mercer has been on the AMNH board since 2013, her ties to the museum have drawn increasing scrutiny in recent days, following a viral Twitter thread accusing the museum of peddling climate misinformation. Over the weekend, Jonah Busch, an environmental economist and visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, shared photos of a museum plaque that downplayed human influence on global warming (saying only that human-made pollutants “may also have an effect on the Earth’s climatic cycles”) while overstating the likelihood of a future ice age.
The photos, taken in what appeared to be the David Koch–funded Dinosaur Wing, quickly garnered furious reactions from science Twitter, prompting the museum to release a statement clarifying that the exhibit in question — which is actually in the extinct mammal wing adjacent to the dinosaurs — predated Koch’s involvement, and was simply in need of an update. The museum promised a speedy review, telling the Voice that “if that label copy were written today it would likely come with a different context and emphasis, including more recent scientific data.”
While Busch tried to give the museum the benefit of the doubt, the incident has ignited a larger debate about the museum’s cozy relationship with those working to discredit the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. The plaque was installed in the early 1990s, the so-called Exxon era of the museum, during which time the fossil fuel giant — whose duplicitous efforts to deny climate change were well-known by then — funded several permanent exhibitions.
Neither Exxon nor Koch are directly involved with the museum currently, the latter’s departure coming after public outcry. Rebekah Mercer’s four-year tenure as a museum trustee, meanwhile, has largely flown under the radar.
“I think it touched on something bigger that a lot of people are feeling, which is the appearance of wealthy and villainous donors corrupting a beloved institution,” Busch tells the Voice. “Was it David Koch? Was it Exxon? Was it Mercer? I don’t know.”
“This raises systemic issues beyond the misleading wording,” echoes Beka Economopoulos, co-founder of the pop-up Natural History Museum, which spearheaded the effort to remove David Koch from the board. “It was likely done for fear of offending a major donor, and for me that makes the current Mercer tie a cause of concern.” (The Voice’s efforts to reach Mercer were unsuccessful.)
For its part, the museum insists that “scientific and educational content is determined by scientists and educators.” It cites past exhibitions on climate change, as well as the research work being conducted in-house, as evidence of a firewall between donors and decisions.
But others with experience in the museum sector say that ultra-wealthy patrons have always had a say in institutional decisions, and warn that it’s especially naive to pretend otherwise when the donors have a vested interest in shaping the thing they’re helping to fund.
“A museum board member who has the potential to give millions or tens of millions exerts influence merely by being in the room,” James Powell, executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium and the former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, tells the Voice. “Other members know where that donor stands and don’t want to offend, else the wealthy member may take his donations elsewhere.”
In the case of Rebekah Mercer, that potential for lost donations is quite significant. According to tax filings shared with the Voice, the Mercer Family Foundation donated $1.25 million to the American Museum of Natural History in 2013 — the same year she was named a trustee. In 2013, the Mercers also gave millions to climate change–denying organizations: nearly $3 million to the Media Research Center, which once called global warming a “media myth”; $550,000 to the Center for the Defense of Free Media Enterprise, whose executive vice president Ron Arnold has said his stated goal is “to eradicate the environmental movement”; and $877,000 to the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank that famously launched a billboard campaign comparing believers in climate science to Osama bin Laden and the Unabomber.
The fear that Mercer’s generosity to the museum might come with a price is based not only on her contribution record, but on an alarming precedent that’s developed in recent years. After Shell helped fund a climate science gallery at London’s Science Museum, executives with the oil giant requested, and seemingly received, several changes to the exhibit, according to internal emails obtained by the Guardian. For years, a Koch-funded climate exhibition at the Smithsonian has drawn criticism for suggesting that humans might simply evolve out of climate change — a favorite Koch refrain. In her 2015 book, Artwash, Mel Evans argues that it’s become increasingly popular for donors to seek to cash in on their “solidarity” with museums to fend off public backlash over their ideological positions.
American museums see approximately 850 million visitors a year, nearly double the combined attendance for major league sporting events and theme parks. They’re a unique interface for communicating science to the public — and one that’s “never been more important, when science is under attack,” notes Economopoulos.
“Having someone like Rebekah Mercer on the board undermines the credibility and trust that the public places in this institution, which in turn undermines the trust that people place in science communication as a whole,” she adds. “That’s just way too high a price to pay.”